In the November 9, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks I’m giving bad advice that costs people job offers. Or at least interviews. You decide:

You regularly advise against divulging past salary in an interview because it might prejudice an employer’s offer. I disagree with you. After going on over 25 interviews (most were second or third round) in the past nine months, I suspect most people would gladly reveal their salary history if required, so as not to be disqualified. What do you say to this?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Do you really want to get stuck defending what your last employer paid you? Do you want to be stuck trying to change the value that an old employer put on your head?

This salary issue is more than a question of being cooperative. It’s about making sound judgments. In my opinion, an intelligent disagreement and discussion about salary reveals integrity and it stimulates an important dialogue. Employers who rely on salary history to judge you are trusting another company’s evaluation. Think about that. It’s almost insane. What really matters is what you can do for this company now and in the future. Is the company able to make that judgment? Why does it need your last employer’s “salary input?”

Declining to divulge salary history is not about being uncooperative. It’s about shifting the interview to a higher plane. Don’t worry so much about getting disqualified.

Some employers will try to pry any information they can out of a job candidate. Should you give them anything they ask for, just so you won’t be disqualified? Where’s the line?

What have employers asked you to say or do, just to stay in the running? Have you ever done anything you’ve regretted?


  1. Nick,

    How about this response.

    “I will gladly disclose my salary after you disclose the salaries of everyone I will be directly working with at you company”

    Too agressive?

  2. John – Maybe too aggressive, but it’s a good example of “Why should I tell you my previous salary?”

    I think the person that asked this question is picking and choosing articles from Ask the Headhunter. I look at ATH as a complete system for choosing your next job. Not finding whatever is available.

    I’ve only been to a few interviews in the last 15 years, and fortunately was never asked to divulge anything. If anything when I was interviewed by an IT Manager at a pretty large company he divulged too much to me. Things like his frustrations with his management. Gave me the wrong signals, and I stayed away.

  3. I know you didn’t ask me, John, but it certainly gets the message across! How about, “Before disclosing my salary history, what have you historically paid others in this position?”

    I had one potential employer want certified copies of my transcripts at my expense. I have been out of college for 2+ decades… There is another similar employer who demands official transcripts before the first interview, before real interest is shown on either side. Even though this employer pays well, they have a hard time finding people to fill openings, and there are always openings… I did fine in college and have nothing to hide, but I feel like this request makes light of my experience in the intervening decades.

  4. When you speak with a good HR person, you can deflect the salary question. A good response will reflect positively you and/or demonstrate your negotiating skills. The HR person will recognize this and move on.

    Unfortunately, there are many bad HR folks who need numbers to fill in their boxes. They can’t move forward without having a number in their box. Assuming that you can’t network to the hiring manager, how do you handle this?

  5. @John Z: That’s actually a question I’d suggest, though it may get you booted out of the interview. As Chad points out, this is just part of the strategy.

    Another approach is to ask the salary of the last person who had the job. They won’t tell you, but it puts a different spin on the interview process.

    In the end, it’s not about finding out who earned what. It’s about working with the employer to help them figure out what you’re worth to them in the job – and that can’t be figured out by talking about what you earned doing some other job.

  6. I was once asked what my SAT score was. I had been out of high school for something like 18 years, and since the SAT is supposed to predict success in college, it’s kind of a moot point. I have a degree.

    I gave a faux shocked look (as opposed to a “this is BS” look) and said something like, “Gosh, I don’t remember. I threw out all that stuff when I graduated college.” (I do know because I regard my low number as a badge of honor in that I proved it wrong.)

  7. My recent experience: After meeting the hiring manager, he had an HR person call me. Sigh.

    HR person asked for my current salary even though the job would have been in a quite different area of the industry. I asked why and she said that they wanted to know up front whether their salary would be an offer I would be interested in before proceeding further.

    I pointed out one of the fallacies of that: It would be much easier for us to judge that if she disclosed the company’s salary range. She didn’t deny that but refused to tell me.

    The other fallacy of that approach, especially for someone like me applying for a job a lot different from my current one, is that the value of the job to me and the value of my work to them would be completely different from the value proposition at my current job. I didn’t point that out since it seems ridiculously obvious and I had already concluded that it wasn’t my kind of company.

    I think one of the problems is that companies have a vision of the typical applicant and his typical career/salary trajectory and are trying to slot actual human beings into that.

  8. @Erika: “There is another similar employer who demands official transcripts before the first interview, before real interest is shown on either side. Even though this employer pays well, they have a hard time finding people to fill openings, and there are always openings… ”

    NO KIDDING! They can’t hire people because they don’t know how to evaluate candidates. I just crack up when I see employers asking for 20 year old information, so they can “assess” you. Gimme a break. You’re sitting right there, and they can ask anything they want, so they ask for your college records??? On to the next. The company isn’t worth working for. The manager is a fool.

  9. @Michael: “Assuming that you can’t network to the hiring manager, how do you handle this?”

    Don’t go to the interview. Why meet with a proxy? Move on to your next opportunity, where you can talk with the manager you’d be working for.

    Honest, folks, this ain’t rocket science. Talking to personnel jockeys before you talk to the manager is a waste of your time. The analogy is asking the hiring manager to meet with your proxy (or agent) before you meet with him – so your proxy can determine whether the manager is worth you time. Think the manager would agree to that? Then, why would you?

  10. 1. The reader could tell the interviewer that his or her salary was protected by a confidentiality agreement.

    2. The reader could pose a scenario to the interviewer. “If I were a NBA basketball player coming out of college, how would you determine what to pay me if I didn’t have a salary history?” Some won’t understand that logic, but the point is clear. The market and your unique worth determine your current value to any company. It gives you an opportunity to provide that analysis.

    3. The reader could tell the interviewer that his parents never asked his salary nor did he ever ask for theirs. I used this response once when the interviewer kept prying. It worked, and it was the truth.

    4. The reader could ask the interviewer the following question: “The last time that you went to dinner, did the server ask you what you paid at your last meal to determine what to charge you? If he or she did, dinner is on me.” ;-)

    5. The reader could tell the interviewer that it is none of his/her business, the question is personally offensive, thank them for the courtesy of the interview, and leave. The road less traveled but perhaps one that will make the interviewer think a little about the situation for the future.

  11. The answer I have used is that “I have been paid market value”. The company knows what the “market salaries” are AND they also have a budget to work within. I know I have never been paid above the range of a salary, nor do I know anyone else that has been. The mindset that “you know what you’re worth and that’s the pay you will accept” to me is flawed. I could say I’m worth 15K over the top end of a salary range, but that just does not fly in the VAST,VAST majority of cases. Asking for a number above the salary range will in no way get you that job, the companies have to have the top of range there so that the employee will get raises as they go through the yearly reviews. You can’t start at the top of the range because you will have no where to go after that….

  12. Nick,
    I have an interview next week with a top company and I have been thinking what to say when the question comes up about salary. Here are three options I have come up with – “I am open and flexible.” or “What is the salary range of the position I am interviewing for?” or if they continue to insist on getting a number, I thought about saying something like… “My salary was in the high $?, plus a yearly bonus of ?%”. Are any of these reasonable answers that might help me to stay in the running?

  13. @G: You just rang the bell! Your post says it all.

  14. @Steve: I’m always looking for good analogies about this topic. “What you paid for your last meal” is a new one. Love it!

  15. One of my favorite HR refrains is ‘We ask for salary history/requirements so we don’t waste anyone’s time.’ If that’s the goal, put the salary range in the job posting. If I don’t like it, I won’t apply and therefore you won’t have to waste any time eliminating me, win-win.

  16. I completely agree with publishing a salary range upfront.

  17. The “market value” response is fair, it shows that you’re not being uncooperative and that you are respecting the privacy of your former employer by not disclosing a specific amount.

    Some employers use job interviews to gain information about competitors. If they pressed me for an answer, I would ask what kind of interview they were conducting. “Is this an interview about me and my skills and how well I would fit with your company or is this an informational interview?” I know that would take me out of the running, but I dispise these tactics.

  18. Nick,

    All well and good with previous posts and I always deflect the question of “what is your current salary?” with the come back question, “what is the salary range” or “what did the last person make” and what they respond with is one of the inputs that I take to decide whether to interview with them or not.

    My immediate problem is a variation of ‘getting to talk to the right person at the right time’ in that in my case I would like to work at a consulting company, say “Booz Allen” for sake of argument entering at the level of director or managing director where they are reluctant to consider anyone above the sr. manager level. Getting in front of the right principal or managing director w/o going through a headhunter is difficult. Assuming that I have LinkedIn, ASQ, PMI Chapter meetings at my disposal and nothing else, where else can I go to cultivate the right people in this case? Talking to the right person (how I got my current job) in the past has totally blunted the salary (and other) questions and objections. This is the only way to interview for a job in my opinion, sitting down to dinner and drinks with your prospective employer hearing what it is that needs to be done and responding by describing how I intend to do it.

  19. When the issue of current salary comes up I respond with the statement What is the salary RANGE for the position? and respond with either it is within, above or below that. It gives me information back about the position because you well know they would not tell me if I gave my figure first.

  20. @Kevin: “Assuming that I have LinkedIn, ASQ, PMI Chapter meetings at my disposal and nothing else, where else can I go to cultivate the right people in this case?”

    Go where they hang out. It’s not so hard to figure it out, once you identify your targets. Professional events, continuing ed programs, seminars, trade shows, chamber of commerce meetings, volunteer groups. Even the pub across the street from work, after work.

  21. Going in well armed is important too. I like the salary calculator at

  22. Chris Walker provided a good salary link. I would like to provide another:

    This is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook. It lists mean and median salaries for a wide variety of job titles. What I like is that they break down things by geographic locale. That is beneficial when considering a relocation.

    It’s also much easier to show HR or a hiring authority what others are earning based upon a large data sampling. BLS data are quoted in major media as a trusted source.

    Another feature that I like is BLS projections for the next decade. These are useful for students who are planning careers, along with more seasoned workers. For example, the projected increase for corporate recruiters is 28% in the next decade.

    BLS data along with those calculated from salary sites should provide a good response to the desired salary query.

  23. I agree as usual with Nic, and here Chris Walker nailed it. If it is “a matter of wasting everyone’s time” then they need to just post the damn salary upfront. It isn’t an issue of wasting time when not posting a range. It is just an issue of trying to get the best talent on the cheap with some of these HR people. I am under a confidentiality agreement therefore that is a non-negotiable issue for me. Nontheless, it is a mute point to me, no one should be required to ever disclose their salary with another.

  24. Oops meant to write “I agree with Nick” not “Nic” but I am sure that was obvious. I am not that self-centered LOL.

  25. With all this focus from HR on the last salary and not willing to give a range, I wonder if they are measured on amount of salary saved? For example, if the range is $90k~$100k, and they hire someone from $90k, do they report a $10k savings, as if they are proving their negotiation skill? (Not a joke…I’m seriously asking.)

    I think if I were asked (which I have been in the past), I would say “We’ll, I’d rather give a number that I would consider rather than my current salary since we are not talking about the same job parameters and I think you are wanting to know what range would make me leave my current position, yes?” If you’ve done your homework on salary range (and that’s where a recruiter should be able to help you), err to the higher side–you can always come down.

    If I feel comfortable with whom I’m speaking, I might even say “I’m happy to share with you my current salary also if you need that for some kind of record keeping, but only after we have agreed the salary for this position.” That should take care of any need for them to fill in a box. I would then have no qualms about telling them the salary of my past employer–at that point, it’s moot–at least for me.


  26. As Nick said, judgement is the key.

    Twice I have moved to a new job that resulted in large jump in my pay. The first time I refused to disclose my previous salary until after I was onboard, the second time I disclosed it during the interview. It did prompt the HR person to ask why I asked for so much more, and I frankly told her I won’t waste my time jumping between jobs for just 10% difference. You can see this is a message to them that I will likely stay for long if they hired me.

    In the second case, I also sensed that I will be getting an offer and don’t want that question to be deal breaker.

    However, I have also been to a few interviews where I refused to tell my salary (confidentiality is a good reason, if they pushed, I will ask them if they would want me to respect my confidentiality agreement with the company if I were hired), and ended up without any offer. But if that was the sole reason I wasn’t hired, then I wouldn’t want to work there anyway.

    @CH: “Asking for a number above the salary range will in no way get you that job”.

    I have to disagree with this idea. I never ever bothered to check what is supposed to be my “salary range”, I think those salary surveys are bunk anyway, every job is unique, and every person can have unique contributions to the company beyond what is written in job description. I know how much *I* bring to the company, if you cannot judge how much that is worth to your company unless you pigeon hole me into some job title, except as a very rough guideline, then I wouldn’t want to work in your company anyway. Because, in the next annual review, you won’t be capable of judging my contributions to the company, and all you can do is give me raise (or not) based on those bunk salary surveys.

  27. Let’s see …

    Chris nailed it: If your sole reason is to not waste anyone’s time, then post your salary range, and if I’m not interested, I won’t apply. Same answer if you are truly just bottom-feeders in the worst economy since 1929. You will get the people so desperate that they will work for anyone to keep a tarp over their flop at the overpass and a chicken in the pot, and you can pat yourselves on the back at what a great job your are doing with the budget.

    What outlandish thing have I been asked for: This seems to be epidemic in the hospital/medical community in that they just cannot accept a resume and see if they want to see you without first you go online to their “recruiting center” and enter your SSN to get started. I asked a HR person form a hospital that required a SSN to even start a application EVEN AFTER CareerBuilder separated their entry from their site with a “Do not give out your SSN” page. The answer? “We need it.” Really? I think you just want to do a little credit checking, background snooping or identity theft.

    @Steve Amoia: You bring up an interesting point about the NBA player. Many times when I’ve been looking for work I’ve thought that I really don’t need HR. I really don’t need a head hunter, or the guy at the local “fill a request” body shop posing as a head hunter. What I really need is LeBron James’ agent. Someone who will go out there and actually market MY skills to people who NEED my skills. Then he or she can come back and present me with offers, and when I sign up with someone, take his 10 or 15% and we all would be happy. Heck I’d even be happy if he wanted 20% and had an offer over $250,000 with 21 days PTO!!

  28. Once I was grilled by an HR person about my college education. She told me that the hiring manager wanted someone who had finished college in four years, which I had not done. My response:

    You mean the manager prefers someone who probably had their parents pay for their education, who had time to party, and whose college work experience consisted of pizza delivery? As opposed to me, who, as a single parent, worked two part time jobs (one on campus and one off campus at night), paid for my own schooling, and still hit the honor role every… single… semester?

    One for the good side: the HR person told the manager what I said, and he said it opened his eyes. I didn’t take the job though. Not my kind of company.

  29. If your previous employer so accurately valued your worth, ask if the prospective company will also base your vacation time and other benefits on what you had in your previous company? ;-)

  30. Had the case where I disclosed my previous salary, just to be offered a significantly lower offer. Wondering why they made such an offer instead of saying the usual “you’re too senior/experienced/etc…” ans make no offer?

  31. That’s easy Pete. They figure lots of folks are desperate and available “on the cheap.” HR folks, don’t do this unless you want the flood gates to open, and your employees stampeding to the exits, the moment the economy turns…

  32. Diana,
    Regarding “wanting someone who had finished college in four years” I’m glad you were able to enlighten that manager, but it scares me to think that people in decision-making roles think that way to begin with. What is wrong with people?

  33. @Suzanne C.:
    Many people just haven’t been exposed to life outside of their own bubble.

    They’ve been shown one “right” way to approach things, and much of the time, investigating others isn’t encouraged. Never mind all the talk about thinking outside the box – that’s just for the PR brochures and job advertisements.

  34. @JaneA:

    Seth Godin’s book,”Linchpin,” discusses thinking along the edges of boxes. Not outside of them. He called these types of people “artists.”

    “What the boss really wants is an artist. If he can’t have that, he’ll settle for a cheap drone.”

  35. @Jack: Regarding past salary AND vacation time… you reminded me of this little article:

  36. I encourage everyone to take a look at the comment on this thread from “An employee”:

    It’s the other side of “the coin.” Not every company nickels and dimes. There is good will out there.

  37. Nick, great post. Thank you! I just received my annual property tax bill…my home has an “assessed value” and a “market value”. I know there’s a technical tax distinction. Some of the discussion reminds a bit of these two terms…your last employer’s “assessed value”…and your current “market value” which is based on the tool box of skills and experience you bring to the table….right now…and how you can immediately solve an employer’s current business issues…today…and in this “market”.
    Thanks again.

  38. Norm,

    It can also be that the previous employer’s “assessed value” for their needs was higher (as was possibly the “market value” at that time) than the new employer’s…
    … as described in my previous post :-(
    But I’ve still chosen that one over a bigger “assessed value” from another company for other parameters!

  39. When interviewed for my latest position, I said, “I am applying for XYZ position. Since we agree that I am a good fit, I expect the market rate factored together with my training and experience. Right now I am unemployed, so everything is a raise to me.”

  40. RT,

    I liked it up to the last sentence. I would worry about employers thinking that the person is desperate because of unemployment, “everything is a raise.” They are looking for any cue to pay less.

    I find this attitude aggravating as my spouse and I do not live paycheck-to-paycheck and I have left jobs entirely of my own choice to pursue hobbies / other interests. And yes, I try to negotiate vacation and even unpaid time-off up-front.

    Be careful with that last sentence and I hope you find something at a fair wage soon! I just hope that last sentence doesn’t make them forget the first 2 sentences.