When you have a chance to read or listen to a great work of literature, do it. I recently finished War and Peace, without a doubt the longest book I’ve ever experienced. What does this have to do with answering the ‘previous salary question’ you’re wondering? Platon Karataev, a saintly peasant character incapable of malice, is described by Leo Tolstoy as a ‘person capable of answering the same question on different occasions with opposing answers, and being correct both times.’ So this is my best Platon Karataev imitation:
Consider these opposing answers to this critical of questions for an interview. As you’ll see, context effects your response greatly.
1. Offer them a homework report: “I have done some homework; I have a good handle on the range
for this position, and I am comfortable with that range.”
If you are doing a screening interview with an HR person, they want to be sure they are not recommending someone outside of the job’s price range. So if they press you , give them a range, a wide range; sometimes this clever little statement can allow you to sidestep a direct answer altogether.
2. Speak from a position of strength: “Do not let people commoditize what you’re worth.”
I heard this stated in a potential-sales context. It applies equally to the potential-job context. When a company wants to talk about salary before they have fully assessed your qualifications, and before you have fully explained your ability to do the job, pull back, or push back before you offer them the requested information. They may still offer you the job, and you may still accept a position with that company; however, they have by asking that question early admitted that they believe you can be bought, and they lose a piece of the ‘employer of choice’ status for any self-respecting interviewee.
3. Provide a direct answer: “I am making $X;” “at my last job, I was making $Y.”
With many job searches, you will not get to second base unless you state a number. That’s particularly true if the person asking the question is a recruiter. I am a recruiter, and I am not going to recommend someone unless I know their present compensation level. Why? When I recommend a candidate, I’m submitting someone I have evaluated and screened, and believe to be a strong candidate for the job. I’m not doing the candidate a favor by recommending them for placement; I’m seeking the best candidate to submit for the company and for myself. If you are so guarded as to not share honest salary information, I think I speak for recruiters everywhere, “we’re not going to gamble on limited information.”
4. And remember to always tell the truth: “I have earned $Z.”
If you actually earned $Z – 5K, or $Z-10K, you have just jeopardized the level of trust between you and your new boss. That distrust may never surface in the potential employer finding out your real salary. Yet it will play out somehow, and that will be bad for you. For many employers, lying about previous pay level, when discovered, gets you out the door in a hurry.
So that’s my Platon Karataev imitation. Hope it helps you figure out how you want to handle that critical job-search question.