You’ve finally decided to take the leap and apply for that job that you really want. You made it through the interview stage, and so far you and the hiring manager are hitting it off. They seem interested in hiring you, but then the dreaded question comes: “How much are you making in your current position?”
What do you do now? You need to give some kind of answer. Trying to dodge the question could seem awkward, but sharing your actual salary truthfully might decrease your earning potential, especially if you’re currently making below the market rate for your position. Because of this predicament–in particular because it more often disadvantages women and people of color–some states and municipalities have recently banned employers from asking about salary history altogether.
But even those laws (which remain few and far between) may not stop an ignorant or unscrupulous hiring manager from pressing you on your earning history. Here are a few scripts you can use no matter what stage of the hiring process you might be posed that question.
When You’re Asked Via Email Or A Web-Based Application
If you’re corresponding via email with a recruiter or HR person, they may ask you about your “current salary.” It can feel rude not to answer, and you shouldn’t ignore the question completely.
Instead, take a friendly tone that encourages future discussion about compensation later on. For instance, you might write:
I look forward to discussing compensation once I’ve learned more about the position.
Or be a little more explicit about your reasoning:
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 job] and am looking forward to hearing more about [company] and your goals for this position.
Alternatively, if you get asked to share your salary in an online application, you should feel at liberty just to leave that field blank or even enter a zero, then include a note of explanation, like the above, in your cover letter or elsewhere in the application. Don’t worry, it’s highly unlikely that your prospective employer will think you’re ready to work for free.
Will some hiring managers be turned off? Unfortunately that’s not an unreasonable fear. According to a survey last spring of over 15,000 employees by compensation platform PayScale, a woman who declines to disclose her salary earns less on average than a woman who shares what she’s making, whereas it’s the reverse for men: Those who don’t share their earning history get paid more than those who do.
Still, I’ve been helping women negotiate for years, and my advice is still to politely avoid the question. To my knowledge, none of my clients have experienced negative repercussions for avoiding the question. In fact, one even saw her salary increase by 30%. Think of it this way: If you have an otherwise strong application, leaving that question blank is unlikely to be a deal-breaker, as long as you’re qualified, professional, and enthusiastic about the position.
One client who’s in the midst of a job search recently told me, “I’ve been using the classic Lelia line [above] and no one has stopped me yet.” Personally, if a company were to reject me or pay me less for leaving that question blank, I probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway.
When You’re Asked In A Job Interview
Getting asked about salary history during a job interview can be far scarier than in a job application. After all, you can’t exactly copy and paste responses in a real-time conversation. But you still have options–here are a few:
Salary information is something I only share with my accountant.
My current/previous employer considers that information confidential.
You can also avoid answering with your salary history and switching the conversation toward what you’d like to be making going forward:
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].
If you’re going to say that your employer keeps salary data confidential, make sure that’s actually true. And I’d only recommend using the last script as a last resort. The prospective employer knows the specific responsibilities of the job and the budget for the role better than you do, but coming up with a range can help you pivot away from the salary history question. (A word on tone: being brash or demanding does not help your negotiation, but neither does sounding lukewarm or defensive. Just demonstrate your excitement and enthusiasm the whole way through the hiring process.)
When Your Potential Employer Is Very Persistent
Sometimes a hiring manager will just be persistent. You might feel tempted to cave if you feel like you have no other choice. But if you’re underpaid, don’t hesitate to say so forthrightly:
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].
This way, you’re showing that while you might’ve been underpaid in the past, you’re aware of this fact and are not going to let it happen again.
When it comes to negotiation, practice makes perfect. Rehearse them out loud and don’t hesitate to rephrase them in your own words. You’ll feel more comfortable saying them the next time you encounter a prospective employer who prods you about your salary history. And chances are, you’ll be happier with the number you hear once you do land the offer.
Lelia Gowland helps women negotiate and navigate their careers. She’s a sought after speaker and writer on gender dynamics in the workplace.