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Hit The Ground Running

How To Dodge Questions About Your Salary History On Job Interviews

Don't live in Massachusetts, which just passed a law barring employers from asking about past earnings? We've got you covered.

How To Dodge Questions About Your Salary History On Job Interviews

[Photo: Warren Goldswain, iStock

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law an act barring the state's employers from asking job candidates what they've earned in previous roles. It's an unprecedented and important change. As a coach, I’ve always advised clients to avoid revealing this information if they're pressed to—something that can still be awkward to do.

The Massachusetts law affirms what should always be true but too often isn't: That compensation depends on a company's assessment of a person's skills and experience, not what their last employer paid them. And since women and people of color are disproportionately paid less than their counterparts for the same jobs, the new law will hopefully help narrow the wage gap—at least in Massachusetts.

Finding Opportunity In A Wrongheaded Question

The thing is, the measure won't take effect until 2018, and while it's possible other states (or, though less likely, the federal government) will follow Massachusetts's lead between now and then, the vast majority of U.S. job seekers will remain open to this intrusive and pointless inquiry.

And it is pointless. Here's how Nick Corcodilos of the popular Ask the Headhunter blog puts it:

When they’re trying to fill a position—and put a value on a job applicant—I believe employers just plain don’t know how the job contributes to profit. They have no idea how to judge your ability to do the job or how the work will contribute to profit. In other words, they have no idea what you are worth.

So they simply try to find out how the last company that employed you assessed your value. Admittedly, to think that employers are this clueless about their own operations and goals is kind of frightening, and it certainly isn’t the case with every company.

But it's worth being prepared for the possibility that your prospective employer really might not know exactly how the position they’re filling contributes to its profits—or how to estimate what you might be worth to them if you're in it. This isn't an ideal predicament for you or your employer, but it does create some opportunity on your end. It gives you the chance to demonstrate your worth, rather than have a hiring manager try to guess at it.

Before your interview, put together some data on how your work has moved the needle for your previous employers. It's simply about quantifying what's already on your resume: Can you show how your product rebrand increased sales? Demonstrate an increase in new clients from your marketing efforts? Show an uptick in followers from when you took over social accounts? This can help create some transferrable metrics that a hiring manager can pin a salary to.

How To Turn The Tables

Here are two critical reminders for whenever you’re preparing for a job interview—regardless of which questions you're ultimately asked:

  1. Know the market range for your experience and the position you’re applying for.
  2. Know what you’re willing to accept.

Before you go any further, pin those down first. That gives you a baseline understanding of your value, which you can use to counter questions about your earnings history by a hiring manager who's still trying to suss it out. Then—and while it might feel awkward—practice a handful of ways you can communicate that in front of a mirror. Money in general and our market worth in particular aren't things most of us are terribly used to or comfortable discussing. So brush up. Better yet, grab a friend and run through a handful of practice interviews together.

The best response to a question about your wage or salary history is decisive yet reinforces your integrity:

My past compensation is a private matter between my previous employer and me. I’m sure you’d hope a former employee of yours would respect this if they were asked a similar question.

You may worry that this will come off defensive in some circumstances, depending on the tenor of the interview. So if that response doesn’t quite fit the situation, consider these:

"I assume you have a budget and an idea of what this position is worth to your company, could you give me a sense of what that is?" This makes them the expert, implying they have knowledge beyond your purview.

"What are your expectations for this position? I’d like to get a feeling for what you’re looking for." This expands their question into a larger conversation about goals. Then you’ve got an opportunity to specify how you could contribute to meeting those goals based on how you’ve performed in your previous positions.

"I'd expect to be paid current market rates for my skills and experiences, so I'm more than happy to discuss those." This puts the pressure on a third-party—the market—to provide a range. And you brought that information along with you to the interview, right?

"I don't think what I’ve been paid in past positions is relevant to my current value or future performance." If someone is interviewing you for a job, they’re surely aware that you want to move up in your career—as well as in your pay grade. This phrasing serves as a gentle reminder.

And finally, just say no! "No, I'm afraid I can't discuss that." Yes, there will be employers who will consider this an obstructionist approach. But while the new law only applies in one state, it puts employers in all of them on notice that the practice of asking about earnings history is déclassé at best and downright discriminatory at worst. So the risk of refusing to answer that question may already be lower nationwide than it was even a week ago.

In any event, you might be able to soften a categorical response like this with my first suggestion, the reminder that they wouldn’t want one of their employees sharing private company information. But if the interview devolves from this point and both parties start to feel disrespected, it may be time to consider whether this gig is for you.


Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.

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