Recently, I received a great question from a member of TheLadders:
“It seems that all articles on the subject suggest that candidates try to withhold their salary history from companies about to make them an offer. What should you do if you try this tactic and the company asks several times for your salary history, and ultimately says that they will not make you an offer until you provide your salary history?”
Well, folks, here’s the answer.
Salary-making rule No. 1 in my book is, ‘Postpone salary talk until there’s an offer.’
So, do you follow this rule slavishly? And what do you do when the employer insists?
First, let’s acknowledge that rule No. 1 is the hardest rule to follow in the salary negotiation process. We’re trained from first grade onward to answer questions. When the teacher called on us, we were rewarded for giving the correct answer. Eventually, we learned that the person who answered the most questions correctly was the winner, the valedictorian, the brain!
The trouble is, in salary negotiations, it’s hard to give the ‘right’ answer. There are a lot of wrong answers, and only a few right ones. If you disclose your salary expectations or history, there are hundreds of numbers that are too high, many more that are too low and only one or two that are ‘just right.’
Take this example — the company is thinking of a package in the $150,000 range, with $115,000 salary and $35,000 in incentives. You’re currently earning a package of $180,000 with a base salary of $95,000. They ask you what you’re earning.
Two out of the following three answers are wrong:
Answer one: $180,000.
RESULT: You are demoted behind candidate No. 2 who’s making $145,000 and better fits their range.
Answer two: $95,000 base, plus substantial bonuses.
RESULT: They demote you behind candidate No. 2 because they’ve got an idea whom they’re looking for and a $95,000 salary doesn’t fit. Or, they interview you thoroughly and make you a lowball offer.
Answer three: Let’s keep an open mind on that for now.
RESULT: The employer is forced to interview you based on skills, qualifications and capabilities, not salary. This is exactly the result we want.
Now, the question arises, “What if the company ultimately says that they will not make you an offer until you provide your salary history?”
At this point, the company has every right to insist on an answer. From their viewpoint, it can be a huge waste of time to interview someone only to find out they can’t afford that person. Additionally, you don’t want to be seen as uncooperative or secretive either. What should you do? Is there a middle ground, a way that will not bump you out of the running, and won’t upset the employer?
Yes. There are several. Let’s explore the one I like to call, ‘Let’s make a deal.’
The strategy here is to make a bargain with the employer. Instead of just giving away your salary information, you make him ‘pay’ for it with a promise: that he will interview you, or at least that he not let salary prevent you from interviewing. That way, you can tell him what he wants to know and not worry that he’ll knock you out of the running.
The strategy goes something like this.
Employer: What are your currently earning?
Candidate: I’d be glad to share not only my current earnings, but my whole salary history. But I think it’s a bit too early to get into salary discussions. I’m sure you pay a competitive salary, don’t you?
Employer: Well, yes, of course we do.
Candidate: Then we shouldn’t have any difficulty with compensation if the fit is right. Let’s explore that for now, if that’s OK?
Employer: I’m sorry. It’s part of our policy that we have the complete picture of someone before we interview them. I must insist.
Candidate: No problem. Can I ask you another question?
Candidate: There are several factors I consider when evaluating the ‘fit’ of a position: the challenge, the company culture, location, travel, career path, long-term compensation and immediate salary and bonuses. So, if the fit is right, I’m confident salary won’t be a problem. Does that make sense so far?
Candidate: OK, here’s my question. If my current salary is, say, higher than you thought, or maybe lower than you expected, that won’t prevent us from having an interview, will it? So, if I tell you all my salary information, can I be assured that we’ll have an interview one way or the other?
Voilà! You’ve played ‘Let’s make a deal.’
Worst-case scenario, she continues to insist that you give her your salary history. If she can’t agree to that deal, press it a little further and say, “Well, then how about this: Since you can’t guarantee me a full interview, let’s do an initial exploration of the fit right here. Let’s see if I have 80 percent or more of what you’re looking for. If I do, we can handle the salary information easily and set a time to go into more depth. If it doesn’t look like I’ve got what you’re looking for, then salary’s a moot point anyway, isn’t it? Let’s talk.”
In summary, the non-disclosure rule helps to get you an interview. You don’t have to follow it like a commandment, though. As long as the employer is willing to play by your ‘interview me’ rules, you can tell her what she wants to know.