“How much were you making in your previous position?”
“What’s your salary history?”
If these questions are cringe-inducing, there’s good reason: asking about salary history perpetuates the wage gap in which women make less than men for doing the same work.
Just think, with the salary history question, if you were underpaid in your first job, you’ll continue to be underpaid in every job after that…forever.
I’m a firm believer that you should be paid based on the work you’ll be doing in the new role, your new company, and your market value (the “going rate”), not what you were making previously.
You might be thinking, “Avoiding the salary history question sounds great in theory, but if my prospective employer asks, don’t I have to tell them?” Short answer: nope! Here are three scenarios you could find yourself in and strategies on how to deal with each.
1. In a computer-based application form or email
Let’s say an application includes a question about “current salary” or “expected salary”. The application makes it seem like you have to fill it out, but you actually don’t have to at all. Similarly, you don’t have to answer if an employer asks via email.
I recommend including a friendly note that encourages future discussion.
“I look forward to discussing compensation once I’ve learned more about the position.”
“If I seem like a good fit for the position, I would love to learn more about the responsibilities of the role – that way I can determine what salary I should seek. I’m excited about [something specific that demonstrates your interest in the position] and am looking forward to hearing more about [company] and your goals for this position.”
If the salary question is part of an online application, you could leave it blank or put a zero and include the note in your cover letter or elsewhere in the application. Don’t worry, your employer probably won’t think you’re ready to work for free.
Clients have asked me if these strategies might make their application less likely to proceed. Frankly? They could. That said, to my knowledge, this has never happened to one of my clients.
One client who’s in the midst of the job search told me, “I’ve been using the classic Lelia line [above] and no one has stopped me yet.”
If you have a strong application, leaving that question blank is unlikely to be a deal-breaker. Personally, if a company were to reject a compelling candidate for leaving that question blank, that’s a sign that it might not be a great place to work anyway.
2. In an interview
Some employers ask about salary history in the interview process. If that possibility makes you nervous, know that you’re not alone. Many of my clients have felt squeamish initially but successfully navigated the challenge.
Recognize the feelings that come up for you and know that those feelings can be a normal part of the process.
“My previous employer considers that information confidential.”
“Salary information is something I only share with my accountant.”
“Based on my experience and research of positions with a similar level of responsibility and scope in [city/region], I’m seeking a salary range of [range]."
I don’t advise sharing your range early in the interview process unless your potential employer asks for it, but when they ask about salary history, they’re clearly looking for you to name salary number first.
Act like a political candidate and pivot to the question you wish they’d asked: the salary range you’re seeking.
You can still say all these things without being defensive but instead demonstrating interest and enthusiasm for the position. Contrary to what you may have seen in hard-hitting negotiations on TV, it doesn’t help your negotiation to be standoffish or lukewarm in this instance.
On the contrary: throughout the interview and negotiation process, you want to demonstrate that you’re excited about this company and this new gig.
3. If they’re very persistent
If your potential employer asks many times, and none of the above answers are working, you can always decide to share your salary information. If you know you were underpaid from looking at your market value, don’t hesitate to say so.
“My previous salary was below market value at [current salary], so based on my skill set, experience, and research about this position, I’m seeking [salary range].”
Each person’s personality and situation are different, so I encourage you to put the sample language in your own words. It’ll feel more comfortable and be more effective.
While these situations can be stressful, you are almost definitely capable of avoiding the salary history question, maintaining a positive relationship, and increasing your earning potential.