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“What’s your current salary?” is a trap question–Here's how to answer it (fearlesssalarynegotiation.com)
95 points by JoshDoody on Feb 24, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

A close friend recently related to me that during an interview process the HR contact mentioned that they had just revoked an offer from someone who 'asked for too much' during negotiations.

Director level position (non-profit, Washington DC). Candidate asked for ~100k, and they were willing to give it to them - until they got a detailed salary history and found out their current salary was ~80k... so they would've only offered ~85k.

So they were absolutely fine with paying 100k for the job (very reasonable for the role and size of the org), until they learned it would be a decent pay increase for the new hire. Insane.

It will not surprise anyone to learn this org has a bad reputation for internal culture and holding on to talent.

Them: "We'd like to see proof of your salary history."

Me: "Sorry- we arrived at an agreeable number earlier. I don't see how a salary history would change that."

Them: (stammers...)

Either way it's a win- you either get it, or they toss you and you dodged a FUCKING BULLET.

They won't stammer. They will without the slightest bit of shame attempt to cajole/badger/guilt/etc you into revealing the information. Then they may also engage in a background check / credit report goose chase to get or infer the information.

You say "you dodged a FUCKING BULLET", and I agree in principle, but in practice, a lot of employers do this, and a lot of people submit themselves to this kind of crap which makes you stick out more (like a sore thumb) when you don't.

They say former employers can only verify dates of employment, where else will salary information show up? I wasn't aware that this information shows up in background checks.

I wonder if you could just counter the request by saying you signed a NDA that forbid sharing that information.

Well, if you work for a state college/uni/other entity like I do, then the salary information is public. Former employers can say or do what they like, they rarely do anything other than verify dates of employment, confirm a few facts, out of a perceived fear of a civil suit, (I guess). Credit reporting agencies OTOH, and other similar companies use all sorts of information to build profiles about you / your habits / other demographic data, and I'd be surprised if there weren't some of these companies who would sell either predicted (and perhaps erroneous) salary range for you, or a factual (if partial) salary history mined from various sources.

>I wonder if you could just counter the request by saying you signed a NDA that forbid sharing that information.

Seems reasonable, or some version of "No thanks, I'd rather not."

> They say former employers can only verify dates of employment

I don't know who "they" is, but this isn't true at all. Many large-scale employers are only willing to verify dates of employment, because they're scared of being pulled into a defamation lawsuit. But that's just an overabundance of caution from them. There's nothing to stop your former employer from responding to requests with "southphillyman typically visits the toilet every day between 11:20 and 11:40".

Some countries publish salary / income for all citizens..

Maybe you're getting unlucky.

That's extremely frustrating to hear and seems VERY short-sighted by the company itself. If they already determined that person would be a good fit at $100k salary, it seems so silly to change their mind just because they learn about the candidates PREVIOUS salary.

Another reason not to disclose salary requirements, but also seems like a case of management myopia. Thanks for sharing :)

If the candidate lied about their previous salary, that would be a perfectly valid reason to drop them. Someone willing to lie to their employer for personal gain won't stop with the one lie.

Remove incentives to lie then. Don't blame people for doing something if there are incentives for doing so.

Having worked as a recruiter I have never heard of an offer being completely revoked for that. Are you sure they weren't just offered $85k and decided to decline it?

If they got the $85k offer, it would have been an opportunity to negotiate and prove why they were worth the extra.

It's a costly process for a company to advertise and interview multiple candidates, it's a huge waste to then fully revoke an offer to the best candidate.

I've used this technique to great effect for almost 20 years. The problem I have now is that my salary is so high that, without presenting a desired salary, there aren't any easy filter questions left to determine whether a potential employer is remotely interested in acquired somebody of my "caliber".

It is reasonable to expect a company to stretch their budget by 20%. However, it generally isn't reasonable to ask for double their budget. The faster we can get to no, the faster we can talk to other folks.

As I get older I (hope) I am slowly starting to understand how the world works, and that is gradually changing some of my interactions from being nice and considerate and open and honest, to being careful and calculated. Although I still have a long way to go. I guess oftentimes I am open and nice at first meeting people still and then realize I have to be more calculating. Which by that time I probably have already given myself a disadvantage. I am almost 40 now so hopefully I will finally get this ?character flaw? ironed out pretty soon.

When it comes to money, people look out for themselves. And unless you are independently wealthy and maxed out your penchant for philanthropy, then you probably have to do so also.

BTW this is a terrific article.

My whole philosophy is to be nice/considerate AND careful/calculated.

In a nutshell, I see salary negotiation and interviewing as a collaboration, not a competition. Working to get a good result for everyone involved is the best way to approach it.

Glad to hear you're looking out for yourself - you're always going to be your own best advocate!

Thanks for the kind words!

I've never had much luck with this approach. It sucks to get through the interview process and find out that you're asking for $XX,000 more than they are willing to pay for the position. I now prefer to state up-front how much I want, rather than wasting time getting an offer for ten+ thousand less than I want and only have HR willing to come up a few grand.

I'm sure many people have applied this technique to great success, but I have strong doubts that it's universal. Maybe it's because I never bring much to the table, or that I live in an area where "market" salaries are not affordable for companies.

Very much agree. Just get the salary discussion done with up front. Saves both parties time IMO.

I have a bit of a different theory on this, based on my experience as a recruiter for almost 20 years. I should clarify that I don't even ask for current salary anymore in dialogue with my candidates.

If you know your current market value, there is no harm in providing your current salary.

As a real-world example (and a bit of an edge case used to illustrate the point clearly), if you know the typical salary for an entry-level developer in Philadelphia is 70K a year, and $NEWGRAD is currently making 35K while working during school, saying "I'm currently making 35K and looking for 70K" is entirely appropriate, as both sides are aware that is the going rate for entry-level developers in Philly. You can't offer NEWGRAD 38K and expect him/her to accept the job.

This applies to anyone, whether you are overpaid or underpaid in your market. If you have strong data on what the market will bear for your services, whether you make half of that figure or twice that figure currently has little bearing on your actual market value.

The challenge is that most people do not have that data, and it's tough to figure out for many. As much as people hate recruiters, an experienced and specialized recruiter should be pretty good at telling you what your market value is - and most should be willing to provide this info to you without any strings attached.

Based on my own recruiting practice and my tendency to allow (encourage) most of my candidates and clients to negotiate directly much more than most other recruiters, I tend to find that candidates who are the most dodgy about their expectations or history are more likely to face a more difficult negotiation from the client.

People who are honest and transparent are perhaps viewed differently by employers than those who fight the question.

I think employers appreciate a healthy negotiation as long as it is done in good faith, but I think the value of being transparent in the negotiation may outweigh any benefits of secrecy, based anecdotally of course.

I agree with all of this.

I have recruiters from 20 different local companies in my contact list. About 6 months before actively looking for a job, I reach out to them to get market information - both on skill set and salary range for my experience. I also unashamedly talk to former coworkers about salaries.

When it is time to start actively looking, I reach out to the same set of recruiters. They only send me jobs within the salary range I want and I know where my application is in the process. There are no black holes.

Usually within two to three weeks, I'm actively engaged (phone screen/in person interview/ waiting for an offer) with 15 - 20 companies.

Once I get 3-4 offers on the table. I'm tired of interviewing, stop the process and accept a job with the right combination of technology/money/commuting distance.

At most, I'm leaving $5000 on the table. Eventually, within two or three years, I will either be within market value range or change jobs.

>They ask you to guess what that budget is, and you decline to guess because you read this article[.] So you move on to the next stage of the interview and do well.

In my experience, when I decline to state my current or desired salary, that's the end of the interview process.

I have an entry level position at my firm, and I was applying to other internal positions that more closely match my skill set, but which would cause me to have a huge increase in pay. One interviewer/screener asked me how much I was currently making, and I said I'd prefer not to disclose that information. Their response was, "That's ok, I can just look you up in our system. Ah, you make $x." It was so infuriating.

This behavior is telling you (maybe not intentionally or consciously), that you need to look outside the company for a large pay bump. Unfortunately, many companies do this.

And honestly, there is a middle ground that a company needs to walk, otherwise on the far side, they can be a ship full of very well paid employees on a trip where a few thin years could sink it.

But to be clear, it's absolutely not in your personal interest to receive low pay for the benefit of the firm - especially in an entry level position.

Yeah, I have been focusing 100% on external positions since then.

Not too much you can do in that situation, unfortunately. I usually approach that as a "focus on getting a raise"-type strategy, which is a little different than negotiating starting salary. You did the right thing in your situation and just got unlucky :(

So why did they ask? To see if you would lie?

Most likely they had to ask every applicant the same list of questions.

I have found that almost any decently sized company uses some sort of online form as part of the application/interview process.

These forms usually have a current or desired salary field and often has fairly strong validations on it (e.g., must be filled in, must be a number between x and y, no non-numeric characters allowed).

So you either have to fill it in or not submit the application form at all (the rest of which is usually perfectly reasonable), which is not going to impress anyone.

I suppose you could also hack their javascript and take out their validations and hope they don't have server side validations as well. That should impress them :).

edit for sense/grammar

If you're just throwing your resume around and hoping, I think you're better off submitting it to every recruiter you can find. They're professionals at the resume-submission game. But either way if you're in this position you should understand that you're starting at a disadvantage.

For a specific company, you should have an inside connection. Get referred by an employee, get contacted by a recruiter who works specifically with them, or even cold-email an HR/manager. Anything's better than putting your resume in the big pile full of spam.

However you do it, when you get to the point where you're talking with the hiring manager and they like you enough to interview more, they may say "HR needs you to fill out our application here before we can bring you on-site," and then it's OK to do so. You shoot the manager a quick note "I'm not ready to talk salary yet, but the form had some validation on it so I just put in '99,999' don't worry about it; it's just a placeholder". Or you hack the form to submit something funny and that's even better.

I despise these forms and their presence almost always results in my deciding not to submit an application. The best companies I've worked for have either (a) not had these employment history forms at all or (b) asked for them to be filled out in minimal fashion after the offer had already been extended and accepted.

I have stopped applying to companies that require these forms for an initial application submission, but recently I was asked to fill one out after a few email exchanges, a phone interview, and an online coding test.

We were about 2 weeks into the process at this point, and I was interested in the position and they seemed interested in me.

Next step was a technical phone interview, but before doing that they just needed me to fill out a formal application...

In this case, it doesn't matter much as I did not do well on the technical interview (got hit with a tricky algorithm question that I didn't know the trick for).

But it also probably didn't help my case much that I put down a fairly high number in their 'desired salary' field on the form -- basically I put down the top number I thought I could expect them to pay for this position.

Mind posting the algo question? I enjoy solving those :)

It was a variation on Max Subarray, but instead of finding a contiguous max subarray you could (but didn't have to) skip every other number (but cannot skip 2 consecutive numbers).

So for [1, -1, 2, -1, 3, -1] you could take [1, 2, 3], but for [-1, -1, -5, -20, -10, -1, -3] you would end up with [-1, -5, -10, -1]. Input values and ranges are large enough that brute forcing won't work.

Well, the answer for an array of all negative numbers is to choose no elements, or if you must choose one, to choose the maximum single element. But presumably you solve it with the normal algorithm but with one level of look-behind. Something like,

  function maxsum(arr)
    local max2 = function(a, b) if a > b then return a else return b end end
    local max3 =
      function(a, b, c)
        if a > b and a > c then return a
        elseif b > c then return b
        else return c end end
    local best = 0
    local best_here = 0
    local i = 2
    while i <= table.maxn(arr) do
      best_here = max3(0, best_here + arr[i], best_here + arr[i-1])
      best = max2(best, best_here)
      if arr[i] > arr[i-1] then i = i + 2 else i = i + 1 end
    return best

  print(maxsum{1, -1, 2, -2, 3, -3, -4, 4, -5})
Assuming this algorithm is correct (it worked for my couple of test cases), the main trickiness is that you have to skip two elements if you choose the current one, to make sure that you don't double-choose.

My understanding of the challenge (which could have been wrong...) was that you had to use at least one half of the array (every other number).

So if the array was [-1, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6], the 'max sum' would be -9 ([-1, -3, -5]).

I can't think of a non-brute force solution for an extended sequence of negative numbers...

If by half the array you mean your solution must include either the first or second, and either the last or second-to-last, then the problem seems a lot simpler. This ought to work:

  function maxsum(arr)
    local max = function(a, b) if a > b then return a else return b end end
    local best = {arr[1], arr[2]}
    for i = 3, table.maxn(arr) do
      best[i] = max(arr[i] + best[i-1], arr[i] + best[i-2])
    return max(best[table.maxn(best)], best[table.maxn(best)-1])
  print(maxsum{-1, -2, -3, -4, -5, -6})
This prints -9, though it's not set up to track which numbers it used. (It wouldn't be hard to modify it to make it do so.) Note that Lua uses one-indexing.

If you're blindly submitting your application to a large company, I think you're doing it wrong.

I don't think I've ever (20 years) applied to a job without either going through a recruiter or an inside source.

The one time I did speak to a company based on a reference, during the HR/internal recruiter phone screen, they asked me did I have any questions

One of the questions I asked was what the salary range they said it depends on experience. I told them my experience is on my resume and we had talked for 30 minutes so they know my experience, so what was the salary range based on my experience?

I told them that we didn't need to waste each other's time with scheduling an in person interview unless they can give me the information. She said she would email me. She did, I told her that was too low. I never heard back.

Just enter your current salary + $30,000. Unfortunately you have to play the game. If they call you for an interview it means they think your are worth that much.

Or they expect you to pad it and plan to negotiate you down. Far easier to just flat out say how much you want.

Philadelphia is trying to ban this and is getting major push back from the likes of Comcast. HR departments keeping procedures like this in place suppresses the wages of minorities, women, and people who may have graduated from lower tier schools. Basically anyone who may have had to accept a job at below average wages is screwed going forward.

Last time out I just flatly refused to provide the information, some recruiters refused to move forward and it is what it is. This is just another reason why it's better to be interviewing while already gainfully employed. Gives you some leverage when dealing with BS like this

Too many words and moving pictures just to get to:

"I’m not comfortable sharing my current salary. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company rather than what I’m paid at my current job. I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, and you know better than I do what value my skillset and experience could bring to your company. I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation."

I've seen a lot of people including recruiters talk about how this is a terrible idea. But then I see this and folks like patio11 talking about similar negotiating strategies. How do I know which one is right?

It's pretty easy to see which is correct. It's a game of imperfect information. There's zero reason to show your hand to the other player as it just backs you into a corner.

The only rationale for giving out any information is to not waste your time but I'd argue it should go in the other direction. Make them say what the salary range is. If it's out of line, then bid them good day. If they don't want to provide it till the end of the interview / offer, then you decide if it's worth your time to deal with them. Clearly they're willing to take the risk of being blown off at the end.

How you decide what's right for you is a personal decision. But when it comes to salary negotiation, you can be sure the company is very much working to do what's right for itself and its shareholders, and I think you should similarly be just as focused on doing what's right for you.

Negotiating your salary is better for you. Disclosing your current salary or desired salary when asked is worse for you and better for the company.

I wrote this article specifically to help folks understand the interview and negotiation processes better so they could make a more informed decision about what's right for them.

Does this help? I'm happy to clarify - just let me know!

Also note that:

"Asking for Salary History Could Soon Be Illegal in All 50 States"


Good note - I've seen this sort of legislation getting a lot of traction lately. I'm not sure how it affects asking for "desired salary" or "salary requirements", so that's something else to look out for.

Thanks for sharing!

Negotiating your salary is better for you.

1000000% agree with this. My first job, right out of college, I got an offer which was fine, and I had no problem with the amount. But, I asked for more, because why not? And got 15% more just from asking.

Always. Negotiate.

A pretty good summary of my "Why you should always negotiate" speech.

"Because why not?"

I love it.

If they'll make you an offer, they'll make at least one counter-offer.

Do A/B testing. One thing that's good for sure: apply for multiple companies. The biggest mistake/time waste I made with companies was when I tried just 1 company at a time and hoped that that company would appreciate it. They don't.

Apparently in MA, USA, where I live, it is illegal to ask this[1]. It is brought up on Business Radio often (sirius xm 111). Although strangely, the host always thinks the law applies just to woman, which I'd find very odd. However, I am not sure people abide by it.

1. https://qz.com/749476/massachusetts-salary-history-job-inter...

The bill doesn't go into effect until next year - July 1, 2018.

Well that'll do it.

The worst part about this question is they try to get you to answer it before you've even really figured out what the role is.

When asked this, I've countered with "I was hoping to make $X" (where X is much more than I make now). Then I follow up, but "I'd like to learn more about the company before I make any decisions on salary."

This establishes that you are a high-value candidate, and you are flexible and not an egomaniac that only cares about money.

I've definitely run into a few cases where interviewers definitely would not proceed with the conversation without a number. Usually they want "what you made" but really they want "what you'll take" so I've had great success just switching the scale from "Salary" to "Total Compensation." Usually a recruiter or HR person who won't move on without a number isn't smart enough to think about the difference and just proceeds as if the number you gave is a salary number. Doing this twice has moved my salary to the very top of the pay scale for my position and location.

I had a horrible phone interview with a company where the recruiter refused to continue until I told them how much I made at my current job. I suspect that they were more interested in a salary survey than actually hiring someone.

It depends on how desperate I was, but I would wrap up the conversation in a situation like that. If you can't be amicable before hiring me, you definitely won't be after.

Very good article, but I'm not sure if their advice for the answer to the salary question will always work:

>I’m not comfortable sharing my current salary. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company rather than what I’m paid at my current job. I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, ...

Now what if they will offer you some salary, and you find it too low? You have just said that you didn't have a specific number in mind. To me it looks like that sentence threw away your opportunity to disagree with the offer and ask for a higher bid?

You also said that you want this to be a big step forward in both responsibility and compensation. This tells them you're expecting a market-accurate offer (so it will probably be good enough for you) and gives you a way out if they don't.

To the author:

> You’ve told them your uncomfortable

your -> you're

Fixed, thank you! (Typos that evade spellcheck are tricky!)

It's been a decade since I have been an actve job seeker, so things may be different now. But my response to that question was always "I'm not going to say what I'm currently making but I'll be happy to say what the minimum amount I'll consider is." If any of them balked at the number I would get up and walk. Some backed down immediately, and we continued the conversation, and others did not. Either outcome was fine with me.

I do this. It's a good strategy in most circumstances, but you do need to be careful. On one occasion it killed the whole process because the company refused to go further with the interview on the basis they assumed they wouldn't be able to afford me. I think they just wanted cheap developers. If you don't have other places to apply to or you're applying somewhere you really want to join, it does come with some risk.

He does answer this question:

> If they discontinue the interview process because you won’t share two of the three unique pieces of information you have, then they’re extremely motivated to get a bargain on your skillset and experience, and they’re not focused on finding the right candidate for the role itself.

> That’s bad news for you even if you get the job. Do you really want to work somewhere that is so myopic that they ignore perfectly qualified candidates simply because the candidate won’t make the negotiation easier?

If you live in Massachusetts it's now illegal for a perspective employer to ask this question as part of your interviewing process:


> Pay Equity, which will go into effect on July 1, 2018 for Commonwealth employers and employees.

A year and 3 months to go before it is illegal.

Philadelphia just passed a very similar law, which goes into effect in a month or two I believe.

I've always hated this question and the best I've managed is to pick what I thought was a biggish number and tell them that.

Picking a biggish number is better than just telling them the actual number (in terms of "What's your desired salary?"). Better to give them a big number, all things considered.

But giving NO number is MUCH MUCH better.

Related discussion on a previous, similar thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11832613

In my country i am not legally allowed to share my current salary.

When I am negotiating I always say what is my absolute minimum and specifically make clear that it is just s bottom line and i would prefer more.

Why on earth would you do that? There's a great chance you just shaved a giant pile of money off of what they would have otherwise offered.

While you are right i know the current market in my area pretty well. Would it be in a different country i would pick another strategy.

I don't really see the point of not telling them, if the company has no idea about your previous salary, they aren't going to be tricked into offering you some huge number, they are going to come in at the average wage in your location for that position.

What you should do instead is identify the number you want to get paid before hand. ( Which should be higher than the average ) And then honestly tell them , I'm currently paid X, but am looking for a job that pays Y.

If they say they can't do that, its too big of jump or whatever, just say that you understand and thanks and move on to the next company

If you're going to do this, you should leave out X. The larger the differential between X and Y, the higher the unconscious (or perhaps even conscious) bias will be against you. "This guy wants a 40% raise to come work for us" vs. "This guy wants $Y to come work for us."

This assumes that the person looking for work has more leverage in negotiations. If a person really needs the job, they can't just walk away over a drop in salary.

i never used a strategy in negotiating a salary before and i got burned during my last job interview because even though i landed the job with a salary higher than what i was earning in the previous job, i found out i could've gotten more out of them. exactly the scenario depicted in this article. i am thinking of ways to renegotiate with them now and would love to hear about any such strategies.

"That's proprietary."

it's another problem but related: for me it's much more difficult to find an employer i'd even really like to work for regardless salary. _that's_ hard.

Very, very long article. TL;DR: "I don't want to tell you, make me an offer instead" is the suggested answer.

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