In the July 12, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter questions whether it’s prudent — or even possible, when forced to use an online form — to say NO to an employer that demands your salary history.


I read your article “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.” While I found it to be an excellent article overall, I couldn’t help but wonder when it was written. Within the last several years, many employers have moved their application process to the web. Current salary (along with desired salary) is a required field in the online application, and there is no option to quote a salary range.

In this economic downturn, with so many people still without employment, the competition is beyond fierce. It’s definitely an employer’s market these days. Unless you are a highly sought-after executive or the best of the best in your field, the company has plenty of other applicants to move onto if you don’t provide the information they are seeking. 

As an HR professional, I don’t mind giving them my desired salary range, because I keep up with the market and I have done my homework. However, I despise the question, “What are you making currently?”, or, in my case, “What were you making in your last position?” As you state in your article, I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business, and it definitely has no bearing on what the job is worth. Yet, can I (or anyone else who is unemployed due to the recession) afford to be “contrary?”

Nick’s Reply

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

I wrote that article several years ago. But it’s still valid. I know the pressure is on, and employers don’t make it any easier with their cattle-call job applications. It’s up to you to protect your integrity.

salary history

Say NO to demands for salary history

I think good candidates must be contrary. They must stand out. Withholding salary history is not indicative of an uncooperative candidate. Demanding it reveals a company that’s not going to negotiate based on the candidate’s value. This is fundamentally wrong. I think you’re letting an employer’s poor management practices seduce you into complicity.

Don’t let application forms intimidate you

If an online application requires salary history, ignore the application. Find a better way in the door. As you point out, if you don’t cooperate, the company has plenty of other applicants who will do what they’re told, and destroy their ability to negotiate. Let the company have them. It wants cows, not people who think and act outside the box. Join a company like that, by playing along, and soon you’ll be looking for yet another job. The herd mentality hurts employers that rely on it, too—especially in difficult economic times.

Read what a successful job hunter has to say about this. He attended a presentation that I gave at Cornell University recently, then he interviewed for a top job.

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: Never divulge my current salary, and Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done. They oughta make you a Cornell professor! I can already see that the one hour you spent with us will have as much impact on my MBA ROI as any class that I have taken in the program, if not more so.” — Rich Mok

That presentation was based on How to Work With Headhunters. The audience was a group of corporate executives in Cornell’s Johnson School of Management Executive MBA program. You don’t have to be an executive to stand your ground, but you do have to be the right candidate. (Otherwise, you have no business applying for the job!) Rich Mok reveals how to redirect an employer’s attention: Show what you’ll do to make the company more successful. Your salary history (and your resume) won’t matter so much. I’ve seen this work at every level of compensation.

Don’t compromise yourself to appease an employer

You clearly agree that salary history is no one’s business. Then why capitulate and compromise yourself? You need not forego an opportunity if the application requires salary history. You just have to demonstrate your mettle and find a better way in the door. Being contrary when the world behaves foolishly doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected. It makes you stand out. It’s what makes you worth hiring — and worth interviewing.

Do employers force you to disclose your salary history? It’s a perennial argument. You feel you can’t afford to say NO when an employer demands your salary history. I say you can’t afford to disclose private information.

So, what do you do? Can you protect your integrity and still apply for the job?

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  1. I have found the perfect solution, at least when dealing with a human:

    As a contract engineer, I recently signed a confidentiality agreement that specifically included compensation. So, when the question comes up at competing (or even the same) contract houses, I look the interviewer in the eye and remind them that they don’t want me to treat a confidentiality agreement lightly.

    Lance ==)——————

  2. Suppose that you have avoided applying through the company website and directly contacted a hiring manager who wants to make you an offer. In the Fortune 500 companies, the next step is likely to be with HR who will start pressing for a salary history. Your leverage to not divulge it will be dependent on the power of the hiring manager to over ride HR. Assuming that you are using the 40% rule, meaning that it takes a 40% bump to make the switch worthwhile, there will be a huge resistance in HR to this if they know your present salary since the function of HR is to get staff at the cheapest rate. The best way I see around this is not to write any salary history down until a written offer is made. Then your past salary is a moot point and you can include it in the application after the fact. Any obvious flaws in this stategy?

  3. I try to deflect the question in an interview by stating that I prefer to discuss the work that needs to be done. If I do receive an offer, then we can talk about salary.

    This does not always work because I have had some employers press the issue. If the employer’s goal is to get someone to work for them at the cheapest price possible, then they get what they deserve.

  4. Another way to deflect the question is to indicate that salary is only one part of the compensation equation. An acceptable salary depends to some extent on other things like bonuses, paid time off, and the split between employee & employer contributions to health insurance & retirement plans.

    Two weeks of vacation, a miniscule (or nonexistent) 401(k) match, minimal opportunities for bonuses, and bearing the entire cost for dependent health insurance will all raise the minimum salary you need to offer to keep my interest.

  5. Employers are not clueless and many have a way of insinuating that you’re acting strange when you refuse to go along with the salary “quotation” game. It also does not help when other career coaches insist our behavior is wrong and that the prospective employer “has a right to know”, especially if you’re considering accepting much less than you did in an earlier high stakes-high pressure role. The employer, they reason, has a right to determine how much of a “flight risk” you are and whether they want to take the gamble that you’ll bolt quickly.

  6. Here’s a job posting that sums up the issue nicely:


    Please respond with cover letter, updated resume AND 3 year salary history and requirements. Resumes submitted without salary history and requirements will not be considered.

    As Nick suggests, go around HR and find another way to get in front of the hiring manager.

  7. I understand that the belief that an employer has the right to know your salary history is deeply embedded in the psyche of job hunters, thanks to decades of brainwashing. But it’s like an impacted wisdom tooth. It has to come out for the pain to end.

    Just say No. Say it politely, say it firmly, say it with a quizzical look on your face. “You mean you can’t assess for yourselves how much I’d be worth to your company?”

    Kent puts a dizzying spin on this when he points out that career coaches teach people to disclose. You pay a coach to help you, so the coach advocates for the employer? Odds are good that the coach is a former personnel jockey for a rule-bound company. Tell them to go pound salt. They’re wrong.

    The only way anyone is right about “forced disclosure” is this: You could get bounced out of the hiring process. So just accept that, and go from there. (If you’re ready to give in, then please don’t ask me for advice about negotiating salary, because you just nuked your own position. You can’t have it both ways.) On the flip side, readers have told many stories about befuddled employers that, when faced with losing a candidate, suddenly back off.

    @Lance: A few years ago a reader shared the same suggestion you did. It’s actually brilliant. Thanks for bringing it up again. Look the employer in the eye: “Now, we wouldn’t want to be complicit in violating a legal agreement between me and my current employer, would we?”

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No one has ever been able to give me a legitimate reason for “requiring” a candidate’s salary history. My advice: Stop worrying about getting rejected for saying no. Any company that tosses a potentially good candidate over this issue has its head up its A. You may be desperate for a job, but do you want to work for a company that you’ll probably want to quit shortly?

  8. Hey Nick!
    Just saw this roll across my FB wall, thought I’d pop in.

    Great points. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve counseled clients (both as an internal recruiter, as well as on the agency side), that what someone’s making isn’t the point. It’s what they need-to-want (ie, bottom line through desired salary range) that matters, and what the job is worth to the company. If those two ranges overlap (or, realistically, are at least somewhat close), you’re in good shape when it comes to comp.

    Frankly, you shouldn’t need to know their range – you can usually assume it, based on whet they’re doing or have done. If you’re paying a fair wage that’s at least competitive, and make an offer in that range, you should be in or close to the candidates salary requirements. Then, you both fine-tune for there (always negotiate, gang – it never hurts, and it usually pays off. Heck, I’ve heard hiring managers say about candidates “I like how he/ she is negotiating here”).

    All that said: you need to be open with yourself. If you know you’re making $125k at a cush, Fortune gig, with oodles of benefits, will you accept an offer of $80k+ potential upside at that super-exciting start-up that’s been wooing you? If you can’t, don’t be rude and walk them down the garden path to ultimate rejection. They can’t afford the time, and your name will get out there as a tease. Not a good rep to have. That’s a situation where you probably should say “Hey, I’ve got a lifestyle (mortgage, family, etc) that means I need to make at least $100k. Is that even potentially realistic here?”

  9. There is a potential legal and contractual issue associated with divulging previous employers’ compensation information to third parties. This can work in the applicant’s favor.

    When a prospective employer asks me for salary history, I respectfully decline to disclose it, under the grounds that compensation information is proprietary and confidential to the company or organization where I worked. In fact, many of the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) I have executed with employers will specifically include compensation among the protected information subject to the terms of the NDA.

    While an applicant can simply opt out of using the online form to avoid disclosing the information, sooner or later some interviewer will ask about salary or wages in person. The applicant should politely tell the person that compensation data is proprietary and confidential and that he cannot disclose it. If pressed further, one could say something to the effect of “I would be just as diligent in protecting your company’s sensitive information; therefore I cannot divulge similar information from my prior employers.”

  10. Argh. This is another circular argument. Why can’t the company disclose the salary in the job listing? That way anyone not interested in being paid this salary won’t even apply. If the company doesn’t want to be that public, why can’t they disclose it in the first interview?

  11. One idea I’ve been kicking around based on a situation I know of…

    I know of people that are severely undervalued at their places of employment – due to the overall economic picture. Many companies haven’t given raisies to employees in years and have not promoted people, etc.

    One idea I would propose is that you feel that your current salary has been affected by the current economic crisis that we’re in and that you feel it is not a good indicator of your overall value. And that if you do end up capitualiting, take the number with a grain of salt. ;-)

  12. Hey Lucille – I think I can shed (some) light on that one. The insidious answer is that they don’t want they’re current employees finding out that the top of the published range is higher than what they’re making. A less insidious answer is that most all salary ranges are flexible, and we don’t want candidates to now apply because they think the job is over/ under them.

    Most corporate recruiters would rather wait until the candidate applies, goes through the whole insane online application process, and then gets knocked out of consideration (before they’re resume is even seen by a human) because they chose the wrong answer on “salary range desired”.

  13. “Argh. This is another circular argument. Why can’t the company disclose the salary in the job listing? That way anyone not interested in being paid this salary won’t even apply. If the company doesn’t want to be that public, why can’t they disclose it in the first interview?”

    There’s nothing circular about it. The applicant’s response either ends the employer’s pursuit of the information, or it forces him to press the applicant to breach a contract with a former employer.

    In practice, I have never had an employer cross that line in pursuit of my comp info. However, your mileage may vary and if they insist despite the possible confidentiality breach, you must decide if you want to go further with such a person.

  14. @Martin Burns: That’s a nice little mini-workshop on dealing with the salary question! Punctuated with, Show some integrity! And the community at large will then judge both the employer and the candidate. Thanks.

    @Kevin: Thanks for bringing up the matter of confidentiality imposed by one’s current (or past) employer. We’ve discussed this before, and it’s a potent tactic. Good luck to the personnel jockey who suggests violating an employment agreement.

    @Lucille: That’s the “eat your own dogfood” argument. Employers would rather you eat the dogfood and let them watch. The variant is another metaphor: You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. Except by mine I don’t mean, “What’s the salary range on the job?” I mean, “Let’s see the salary you pay other people who do this work, and the salary you paid the last employee who had the job.” Oops.

  15. I know someone who was out of work for 15 months and told me that perspective employers were offering her half of what the market value is for this particular line of work, even though she had years of experience in her field. She finally found a job with a company that was willing to pay the going rate for the work. My guess is employers think job seekers are desperate and can ask for salary history and then offer less than what was previously earned.

  16. @DLMS: You raise an interesting point. While I don’t think HR is so conniving… Do companies use the request for salary history as a test? If the candidate complies readily, is that a signal of desperation and willingness to bend — not just on salary, but on other terms?

    Has anyone ever experienced this? Evidence? If you’re an employer or in HR, have you used this as a tactic/test of the candidate?

  17. How amazing is the small world phenomena! I just talked with someone in my network on this very point + one more. I told him unless he was desparate to pass, and thought to myself what would Nick have told him…I thought perhaps Nick would have told him to tell them to …..themselves, but more politely as herein.
    the + one more is they also had the brass to also require him to provide his current supervisor’s name (he is working) AND contact information. I suggested he ask the internal recruiter who pointed him to the site if they were seeking idiots.
    The less cheeky advice was along the lines of Lance and Kevin, to tell them that this info was proprietary, particularly naming the supervisor and unethical for him to disclose. We both worked for the same paranoid company which guarded this info with a vengence. You were forbidden to disclose your pay info to other employees never mind outsiders, and they didn’t even do org charts. You had to be a detective to figure out who was who and who ran what. And revealing names to outsiders was a capital offence.
    And this advice is not a ploy. It’s real and substantive. What these companies are doing is collecting business intel, or using a 3rd party who in doing the collecting for themselves while provide application service (don’t assume the site you are sent to is the employers, it can be a 3rd party business) ..or both. Imagine the volume of responses in this job market and as such the neat info they are collecting on competitors, the industry, market value of jobs , salaries per job, and in the case I’m citing names of management employees from all levels. Inside information invaluable to their own recruiters. As many have pointed out they don’t NEED this info to source new hires. They didn’t need it before and don’t need it now…simply because recruiters and hiring managers really don’t need it. And they know that. Getting it doesn’t make recruiting easier or less risky. But it does provide super business intelligence.
    Hence you are definitely not wrong to take a position that it’s not ethical to ask, and in many cases as some have already said this stuff is covered by NDA’s
    And here’s some irony, the company asking, just announced a major major layoff. They aren’t in any position to ask someone to disclose.
    I’m going to forward Nicks newsletter to him & suggest he read the whole thing and of course sign up.

  18. Interesting Don b/c I just spoke with a colleage about this topic today too. This individual’s reasoning about HR asking for a candidate’s salary and other information is to see if they offer competitive compensation when compared with other companies in the area. What?! Why should candidates be expected to provide employment data to a perspective employer on the basis to determine if they offer competitive salaries, etc.? It’s crazy out there.

    • To that person I’d say they should be looking on for comparison rather than potential employee candidates!

  19. @DLMS and @Don

    Agree – preaching to the chior!

    It’s as I said earlier. Over the last few years, due to economic conditons among other things, companies haven’t been giving people raises, bonuses, promotions or other benefits/perks that would have been otherwise warranted in better times.

    Other companies have been run poorly and yield the same result.

    In other words, you could be the most profitable employee but it all gets lost.

    Geography also plays a role. For example, in my area of the country, the cost of living is lower and there wasn’t as big of a housing bubble to pop. So you need less money to get by.

    So, to base future compensation on some number that made sense at one place and time, and may not be relevant due to any number of varibles is stupid. It only serves as a single datapoint to be taken with a grain of salt.

  20. @DLMS: That’s hilarious. How lazy can HR get? It’s gotten to the point where sitting behind a PC and buying data (salary, resumes, benefits info, etc) is the new HR job. And applicants are just another “competitive data” stream.

    Is HR ever gonna get up off its collective duff, and go out to actually recruit people out in the real, live world?

    Lenny Bruce once used a great expression when telling a story about incoming prisoners being processed for their incarceration. It’s apt here. “SCRUB ‘EM UP & GET ‘EM READY!” Glad I’m not a candidate.

  21. Nick, thanks for another great article with good advice. I’m not at the stage where I’m being asked to disclose previous salary info yet, but your comments are exactly the same as another career coach whose book I am currently reading (came recommended to me from someone who had been out of work and got a job without sending her résumé or going thru HR). Cohen makes the same comments as you did re salary disclosure–never ever never never ever disclose your previous salary because it will either knock you out of consideration for the job or will eliminate any leverage you have in negotiating a higher salary for yourself.

    That said, I have seen online job applications (once again, being herded like cattle to those sites and funneled to HR, whose purpose is NOT to match you up with the job but to eliminate you without even reviewing your application) and seen the “previous salary” as a required field. You can’t progress with the application unless you put in an amount, and the required field won’t take all zeros or all nine. I’ve called to find out who the hiring manager is, and in some cases, the hiring manager deferred to HR…..that is now a warning sign to me NOT to continue with the application.

    Oh, and it isn’t just the previous salary as a required field, but also the phone numbers for previous employers. I’ve worked for companies that are no longer in business, and in several cases, haven’t been in business for quite some time. I don’t have phone books from 20 or even 10 years ago, and that required field doesn’t let me enter all zeros or all nines, nor is there a space to indicate that the company is no longer in business. I’ve tried entering my own phone number, which, I later learned, got my applications automatically sent to the shredder/deleted files by the computer. Not a single human being ever looked at them.

    Businesses that do this–set up these arbitrary required fields–are missing out on some potentially fantastic employees because HR has hijacked the hiring process and they’re screening system (a computer does it) is screening out good people for the most ridiculous reasons.

    Nick is right–you can be polite but firm and not disclose previous salaries. If the interviewer balks, then it is a sign that this is not the right company.

    And yes, HR is incredibly lazy–you’d think they would want to find the best candidates for the jobs–and really, the only way to do that is to eliminate some of these “required” fields and start looking over the applications and résumés themselves. Don’t rely on a computer.

  22. Excellent Nick! This a little off the mark, yet relative to how companies “play the compensation game”. As a recruiter I always get a salary range for a position and I post it. I do not want to waste potential candidates time, my reputation by seemingly misrepresenting compensation. I also get compensation package information. Candidates are given this information and sign a non-disclosure agreement( yes, they can break it without much consequence)yet I believe most people are trustworthy enough.If a company does not want to give me a salary range or says that it is open I am very leery. I am not going to work very hard for a company who is not upfront with me on these issues or not at all. I recently had a position to fill for 85k. I was upfront and told the client they were not being competitive and after a couple of weeks of seeking they understood that and went to 100k. So, I found 3 stellar candidates for them. What did they do? They tried to get them for 85k. Insulting the candidate, making a fool out of me and they have yet to fill the position. The word is out as there are few people who can do this job. My philosophy is if you can not be upfront about compensation you do not really want the best candidate for the job and I have more respect for myself and my candidates to play your game.

  23. @MaryBeth: Sometimes it’s a dope in HR demanding that those fields be set up as “required.” Sometimes it’s overly-clever programmers who might think they’re doing HR a favor… but don’t realize that not everyone has 10 year old phone numbers on hand…

    If you have some time on your hands, why not shoot a very brief note to the chairman of the board? Very brief, so you don’t appear to be complaining. Just as a heads up. “Your HR dept is using an online form that’s wasting your money and my time. And losing you good candidates. Lotsa luck.”

  24. @Lynda: You mean it isn’t just TheLadders that lies about salary ranges??? Employers do it, too???

  25. Why whatever do you mean Mr. Corcodilos? LOL!

  26. Nicks, thanks for the tip. I saw a job posted at one of my alma maters–tried to apply for it, and couldn’t complete the online application (they only want you to apply online; will not take a hardcopy résumé; got the folks who would be making the hiring decision on the phone, and all of them told me to apply online, which means the app goes to HR first, not to them). I saw a faculty member (not involved with the program that had the open job) and casually mentioned it to him. This was around commencement time, and he said that if he had the chance, he’d mention the issue to the president of the college. He did (and he had a bureaucratic issue of his own to discuss with her as well since he wasn’t getting anywhere dealing with that particular dept.) in the guise of “here are a couple of snafus that are causing problems–let’s be reasonable and fix them”. The college president listened, and encouraged him to pursue it as far as possible, telling him to take it to management if the head honcho in the dept. wouldn’t budge, but didn’t offer to intercede (didn’t expect that). So the next time I saw him, he told me what he learned, and gave me the name of the person in management who oversees HR (for my issue; his issue got solved) and suggested that I write to him. I did that and got a response along the lines of “I’ll look into it and get back to you. Maybe it is fixable, and maybe it isn’t–if it isn’t it is because of the kind of program/package the school purchased, but I would think that as a customer, you can dictate the parameters (required fields). I wrote a very neutral email, stating that I am an alumna, was interested in applying for a job and had been unable to complete the online app due to the required fields and asked what I could do to ensure that the app or résumé gets through the system, and thanked him for any suggestions he may have. I also stated that I am sure that I am not the only applicant who has worked for companies that have gone out of business…

    I like the idea of writing to the chair of the board…not in a snarky, whiny way, but in a I’m a legitimate applicant, I have skills that can help you, and I can’t complete the online app because of the required fields.

    It is the same issue with making previous salaries a required field–it serves no purpose except to eliminate potential candidates who could truly shine in the job.

  27. One point I would like to add, is what to do when you did spill out you previous salary, and HR found out your exoected salary is 40% more then your current pay.

    I encountered exactly this situation a few years earlier, actually I asked for 50% more than my current pay. I felt I already had a good chance and don’t want HR to become an obstacle to me getting hired, so I told HR my current salary.

    As expected, they politely asked why I requested such a large raise, I honestly replied that it is my policy not to change job for small increase in compensation. I hope they also got the message that if they hired me, I won’t be leaving unless another company is going to offer 50% more than their offer.

    In the end, I got the job.

  28. My late father (who spent 20 years working for certain state in unemployment compensation) once told me that HR had value when it was still called “wages and benefits”. They made sure the correct sum was in the pay envelope every week, and made sure you got your vacation and medical paid.

    Now, if a HR person can provide any value to the enterprise, they have moved to an operating department. All that is left are the ones could at screening out those who CAN provide value, and playing Angry Birds.

    At this stage in my career I’d rather sleep under a park bench than work for a company that demanded salary information, my current manager who MUST provide a reference or employ dirty “head hunters” (the kind who call you at 4:00 AM because you must take a great position they have for 3 months, onsite in Moose Oysters in the winter).

    In addition, I want to see clearly how I contribute to your bottom line, a clear path for advancement, a Results Oriented Work Environment or some percentage of each. Does it sound like I’m all about ME? Yeah. Is anyone else going to do the heavy lifting on my behalf when it’s time to negotiate my next position? Thought not.

    Tho to be fair my $125,000 for five years offer is STILL open to any agent (sports? publishing? talent? music?) who can represent me in a 5-year contract with some enterprise who really wants my services.

  29. @Kevin S. Brady “When a prospective employer asks me for salary history, I respectfully decline to disclose it, under the grounds that compensation information is proprietary and confidential to the company or organization where I worked.” <- 100% agreed. I would never disclose salary under any circumstance. For reasons Nick has outlined, and Mr Brady as elaborated upon.

  30. I and others I know have been “eliminated” from consideration by an on-line application if all the fields are not entered with information. It is unfortunate that good candidates are never seen by hiring managers b/c of a faulty on-line application process.

    Moreover, the on-line application process reeks of laziness by HR and hiring managers who don’t want to be bothered and prefer to let a software program do their vetting for them.

    I wonder how these same companies treat their customers, vendors, etc. Hopefully, not with the same lack of respect they treat job candidates.

  31. @Lynda–you’re right–employers who aren’t willing to post salary ranges frustrate me as well. If the salary is too low, I won’t bother to apply for the job because I can’t live on the salary. And yet many employers do all kinds of sneaky things to “hide” the salaries. At one college, the pay scales are given in numbers (13, 11, 16, etc.) and at another in letters (A, D, M, N, etc.). I’ve called HR to find out what the salary is, and have been told “11” or “G”, and no where on their website is any kind of guide to what these scales/ranges mean. So HR has no problem buying computer programs/systems that do the “weeding out” of potential employees for them so no human being ever has to look at an application or résumé, merely by indicating key words and required fields, yet they’ll set themselves up for a great deal of telephone and email traffic by not posting the salaries of the open jobs in a transparent manner.

    We all have HR horror stories; what I appreciate are the tips in how to get around HR, because HR is a hindrance to the job seeker.

    Thanks again Nick.

  32. I wonder how these same companies treat their customers, vendors, etc. Hopefully, not with the same lack of respect they treat job candidates.

    I just don’t understand the HR people who think that candidates and customers live in parallel universes and never talk to one another or – horrors! – might even be the same people.

    Someone treated poorly by Company A might persuade Company B not to consider (or to stop) using Company A as a supplier. Depending on the person’s influence, more than one company might get that message.

    Just because many HR departments don’t seem to believe in networking doesn’t mean they can ignore it.

  33. Like Marybeth, I too would like to know how to get around HR when applying for a job. I have tried reaching out to hiring managers, when I can find out who that person is.

    This broken process of applying for a job has me so frustrated.

  34. The reason this is this way is due to the people above HR. I told an executive this week “I could have you over a half-million USD a year!” He said, “How?” I said, “I’d fire your SVP of HR, your corp. dir. of HR, and your admin of HR and hire one sharp pro for top dollar who knows what the hell they are doing. That one person could easily handle what these idiots do and do it ten times better for half their total salaries.

  35. @Jane Atkinson

    Right on!

    But I think the problem goes even deeper than HR. I say it goes all the way to senior leadership. They set the example and it trickles down.

    I am reminded recently of a friend who interviewed for a position. Once he got into the interview, it was apparent that whoever was screening/reading resumes/canidates didn’t do their homework and therefore had no clue. Not to say my friend didn’t screw up in his own way.

  36. @MaryBeth and DLMS: Try these suggestions for getting around HR:

    Keep in mind that if you skip HR, you must have an alternative. Meeting “the alternatives” is so much more fun!

  37. Nic, thanks for the links to the info about getting around HR.

  38. Nick, thanks so much for the links. Every little bit helps, and I’m neither shy nor afraid to try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  39. The “that’s considered confidential information, I signed an NDA” angle is indeed a good one that I’ve used. Also, if a recruiter/headhunter won’t give me a range for the position I’m looking at applying for, that’s when I stop talking to them. As someone else advised on this issue once, whoever reveals a number first in the “I’ll show you mine if you show me your’s” game with salary loses.

    When asked for what salary I’ll take for the position by a recruiter or interviewer, I politely tell them that, as someone pointed out above, that depends on the total compensation package not just base salary, and if things get to the point of them making an offer I’ll evaluate the total compensation package, and if the base salary isn’t in my range in that context then we can negotiate from there.

    Everywhere that I’ve eventually worked either wasn’t so crass as to ask such questions or was completely fine with the answer to that question I give above.

  40. @David M.

    I think that’s a wise strategy.

    One thing I’ve have happend to me is they ask my desired salary range in a phone screen, but whoever does the phone screen doesn’t have the power to end things there or even know the salary range.

  41. Nick,

    I am happy to see this one come up again. As you will recall, I was the guy who suggested the “confidentiality agreement” route. I have had that strategy in play since 2003 and it has served me well. Ironically, I just finished recommending the older version of this thread to some younger relatives looking for career advice. This current thread is a nice refresher.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that HR is not just a hindrance to the job seeker, it’s a hindrance to the employer, as well when good candidates are excluded (and self-exclude) because of their shenanigans. This means it’s a hindrance to doing business and the more we indulge their petty intrusions, the longer we allow them to survive and drag down the bottom line. Say no. Just say no.

  42. It’s amazing the lack of maturity supposed adults have with regards to this subject. In most other endeavors, 2 people of consenting age can agree to a price, take it or leave it, no hard feelings.

    It is especially great when you DON’T have to work for the money. Some employers resent that. The rest are a pleasure to work with and negotiate accordingly, from the monetary compensation to other intangibles that work brings.

  43. For at least 15 years, I tracked my level of compensation in three professional publications that did yearly salary surveys in my field, Distribution. For the most part, they were close enough to keep me confidently informed whether I should stay or go. Sometimes one was higher, sometimes one lower, sometimes one was spot on (Goldilocks still rules!), according to my number of reports, years of experience, position, and level of education.
    When it was my turn to face a brutal economy head-on when the company I had worked with for thirty years was bought out, and I was bumped out (I believe the gentler word is “severed”), I had only one contact with the outside world—a woman who had provided temps for me midway in my career.
    She brought me up to speed sympathetically but unapologetically about the employment situation in early 2009. She basically and accurately informed me that I was worth $50,000 a year less in the “current market”. I had other things on my mind, like basic survival, which did not happen for another year and a half. Before I could wrap my head around what she was trying to tell me, I fell into clinical depression, fully believing that I would never be employed again, even at “survival wages”.
    As I was climbing out of my depression, I found work the old-fashioned way—I answered an ad in the Sunday Paper. Much to my surprise, I got a phone call. Never one to lie before, desperation to interview with anyone made me say yes to the question, “Are you sure you’re OK with $9.50 an hour?” I said “yes”, and set up an interview. (In my state, $9.50 an hour is the maximum unemployment pays, so this was like an extension with benefits—my Obama reduced COBRA was about to expire.)
    Then there was that question on the application that I dreaded: how much did you make on your previous job? I was approaching six figures on my old job—how was I going to convince anyone that I would be content with a working man’s wages? Well, I was a working manager, so somehow he believed me, hired me, and now 10 months later; I’m somehow surviving a rough-and-tumble 3P distribution job.
    All of that aside, as I recover from depression and regain my Mojo, anger replaces lack of esteem as I recall evidence of the corporate brain drain that began years before the current “recession”. In my work search group that met weekly, the guy on my left had seven patents to his name; the guy on my right had only one, but it was on something we all see every day while we’re driving. Another member shared a story about a woman who received an MBA that was totally financed by the company that released her.
    As I read job descriptions while I search in vain for something on my level of management, I’m struck by the formidable increase in responsibility with a corresponding huge reduction in compensation. I don’t know what part of New Math they’re using, but when I see responsibilities double, and pay reduced by 75%, and hear complaints that no qualified candidates can be found, I’m reminded of my favorite line from Dr. Phil: “How’s that workin’ for ya?” Or even better, the real-life overheard comment, “I wouldn’t supervise 12 12-year-olds for $12 an hour.”
    When I was approaching higher levels of compensation with corresponding greater challenges, there would be days that I would say, “They’re not paying me enough . . .”, but I would stop myself, and say, wait a minute—they actually are paying me enough to put up with this.
    One of the questions my “survival boss” asked me was why was I getting out of management. At the time, I didn’t think that I was getting out of it, but one trick life plays on you is remembering only the good stuff on your old job. As I watched my new boss go through stuff, I began to remember what I went through—the frustrations and pressures. One of my “survival coworkers” was also a manager in her former life. We didn’t make a pact never to be a manager again, but we seemed to agree that neither of us were in a hurry to resume those responsibilities.
    So what does all of this have to do with requests for salary info? Since I have a “survival job” already, I’m not desperate enough to worry about a website knocking me out because I won’t complete the salary fields. Of course, early in 2009 when it did do that, I fell into mental illness. If I like the company (I don’t worry about “blind” ads anymore), I’ll find their address and mail them my stuff. On my braver days, I pick up the phone to inquire.
    I have this really stupid idea that many of the smart people who were screwed over by this economic boondoggle are smart enough, or fortunate enough, to hole up until Corporate America realizes that they can’t get the talent they need for the price they want to pay. That a few companies might still be smart enough to initiate a conversation with a talented person (don’t get me started on ‘talent management’) based on accomplishment, not former income; based on needs, not wants.
    My ultimate fantasy is that none of these people would be found online—that they will only give the time of day to people who take the trouble to initiate face to face along human routes.
    Based on Nick’s comment on compensation some years ago, I have decided not to de-value my currency. If this prices me out of the market, then that’s OK, because at the moment, the market sucks. That’s why I deflect the questions about former compensations with an interest to investigate the work available, and ask what the range is. The only thing I will continue to lie about is my agreement that the range is acceptable, just so I can talk to someone.
    Just today, a good and long-time friend shared a compensation experience that solidified my stance on this. The guy negotiating had completely forgotten the terms. My friend wanted a certain level, but didn’t remind the decision maker. He just smiled and said, “I’ve got to think about it”, when the first offer was made. Each time the level was raised. Each time, my friend just smiled and said, “I’ve got to think about it.” At the end of the conversation, the decision maker had reached the exact level of compensation my friend desired. My friend had not once mentioned any dollar amount.
    So what is my current level of desired compensation? Take what I was making in 2008, and INCREASE it by 5% each year.
    Why should I accept any less?
    The calendar is ticking . . .

  44. @Underemployed: yeah, it’s brutal out there right now. I got laid off in 2009, and there hasn’t really been ANYTHING available anywhere near my level of experience or compensation in the area I was living in then (Tucson).

    Fortunately (didn’t seem so at the time) I had no choice but to move my family in with my brother up in Utah who had a VERY large house he’d bought in the boom before multiple businesses of his slowly died one after another. Utah is one of the few spots in the country with “full employment”, or an official unemployment rate of just over 5%. It’s a mini high tech corridor between salt lake and provo (not just novell is here!) and there have been jobs available the whole time here since I moved. To get a job within 3 months I had to take an initial salary cut that put me back to what I’d been making 2 years before, but that’s not very major thing. Within less than a year I was back where I’d been before the move, but without benefits (through a contract house). Then when someone there moved to another company a year later I followed them, kept my salary the same but got full benefits on top of it that amounted to more than a 25% raise.

    Companies in utah have been doing fairly well since the ‘official’ recession ended, partly because many workers don’t want to move to ‘mormon land’ because of cultural/lifestyle issues. If it’s salt lake city, surprise, it’s less than 40% mormon now, almost down to 30%, and is very cosmopolitan. Farther south in orem/provo, yeah, it’s mormon central, but there are more ‘tech for its own sake’ type of companies, and not just tech jobs in other industries.

    I know practically starving geeks on the coasts working at ‘survival jobs’ who could get back to their pre-crash salary by moving here, but would rather cut their arm off. Kind of insane, and I partially shared that view before I had no choice but to be here or homeless with a wife and kids.

    My point: look at employment numbers in your field in other geographic areas, and be willing to move if you have to. If you’re already doing that, maybe others reading this need to hear it. It isn’t equally bad everywhere.

    Oh yeah, and a good tactic to paper over any period when you had to take ‘survival jobs’ in a recession (I had to do that a while after the dot-com crash for a year or so), ‘consulting’ is a wonderful thing to list. Actually DO SOME, even if it’s at a fraction of your old salary, so you can legitimately put down that that was what you were doing. Slash your rates if you have to, even if it just get’s you a little bit of sporadic work and the ‘survival job’ is your main source of your now greatly diminished income. Keeps your hand in the game, you keep contacts open for when things pick up, and you don’t have to lie about what would otherwise be a gap.

    Or go back to school: unless you got a Phd in your field, student loans are easier to get, grants are bigger, and going to grad school is seen as not only wise but not a ‘gap’ on the resume when the economy picks up. Did that last downturn when I got tired of consulting (even after THAT had picked up to the point that I’d been able to ditch the survival jobs for more than a year).

  45. Oh yeah, and have anyone you know in survival job land read this site and subscribe to the newsletter :-)

  46. I as a local government executive my salary was regularly published in news articles and readily available from the agency. That being said I still try not to disclose it to potential employers. But I don’t make an issue out of it either.

  47. I wanted to share this story with your readers. So I applied for a job with this big Fortune 100 company. Then I got an email from an HR person telling me they wanted to interview me over the phone and asking me for available dates. So I emailed her the information. A week later, I got another email saying that the hiring managers wanted to let all the candidate know that the position was “in the middle of nowhere” and that they wouldn’t provide relocation. I already knew from the position description they had posted that the position was in the “middle of nowhere” but didn’t know there was not going to be relocation help. But OK, I figured if the job was worth it, I could compromise on that aspect. So I emailed the HR person that that was not a problem. So she emails me once again to let me know that the hiring managers had said that their would not be any bonus for this position. I was already smelling something really fishy going on so I responded to the email by saying that I would be interested in talking to the hiring manager to discuss the specific of the position, find out what the salary range they had in mind was, etc. So I get an email back from the HR person saying, that she was going to answer my question with another question, namely, what my salary history was, and how much I was interested in making. At this point, I had realized that this whole thing was a joke but decided to continue playing their game. So I said (thanks to Nick’s teachings), that I would be glad to provide her with all the information she wanted and that I was really interested in the opportunity (of course I was not any longer at that point, but I wanted to play their game) but before I could do that, that I’d like to talk to the hiring manager and find out more about the specific responsibilities of the position and ultimately discuss how I would be contributing to their bottom line. A couple of days passed by and, lo and behold, I get a generic rejection letter from the company.

    Lesson learned, when something looks fishy, smells fishy, and stinks fishy it is 100% a sure thing that is a rotten fish and one should run away from it as fast as possible.

    Thanks Nick!, Jedi Master ;-)

  48. @Frank: I’m sorry you had to go through that, but your story is great. Thanks for sharing it. I’m glad you knew what to do. Anybody who tries to recruit by stating all the negatives, and trying to talk the candidate out of it, isn’t worth working for. These guys were trying to find a desperate sucker who would tolerate anything. Good for you for playing it out. I wonder if they realized you had already rejected THEM!

  49. Listen carefully new job seekers, because this is only coming once. When asked your salary, always do the following: lie. Yes, that’s right. Politicians do it. Your parents do it. Your hiring manager does it. You should too.

    Trust me on this, I’ve been getting the above-inflation raise I deserve every couple of years for the past 25 years by saying I was already making the salary I wanted to move up to. Think they’ll ask your former employer what you really made and find you out? OK, then. Let me ask you another question – why do you think they didn’t just do that in the first place instead of asking you?, if your former employer were so forthcoming and all? I’ll tell you why: your former employer won’t reveal how much they paid you, because they won’t want anyone to poach their remaining staff, and giving out such information would make it easier to do that.

    So, when asked your salary, don’t be dumb and get offended and refuse to give that information, or worst of all blurt out a real figure that you may have found acceptable a few years previously (when you were less experienced and considering a different job to the one on the table). Instead, be smart, and and use the person asking you for information’s own greed and incompetence at negiotiating against them. If they’re going to use you as a source of information about how much your skills and experience are worth rather than doing any actual market research, they deserve all they get.

  50. @R: No, don’t lie. Because after you get hired, and the employer brings you into new employee orientation and asks to see your pay stubs, you’ll get fired. If you decline, you will probably be in violation of company policy, which you probably agreed to abide by when you signed the job offer.

    The entire world could be lying – that’s no reason to become a liar, too. It’s wrong, stupid, and it’ll cost you.

    There is a solution: Politely and firmly decline to disclose your past salary before you get an offer. No employer has any legal right to your salary history, until and unless you sign something granting it. If you don’t disclose, and after they hire you they learn you managed a 50% increase, there is no lie.

  51. So what do you do when the employer is willing to pull you out of consideration for not providing your salary information. They back you against a wall and basically say, give the info up or move on!

  52. @Jeff: This is a personal decision and you must do what you think is best. I agree with many who have posted their opinions on this discussion: I’d move on to an employer that isn’t playing the salary history game, because I know my salary history will be used to cap any offer. I don’t negotiate against myself like that.

    I’ve often used this analogy: You’re on the new car lot and you want the red sports car and you start talking price. The salesman asks to see your checkbook register, so he’ll know how much money you have in the bank before he quotes you a price. Do you show him?

    Some employers demonstrate integrity in the hiring process. Some don’t. It should be no surprise that so many Ask The Headhunter readers report that employers very often back off — or that they don’t mind walking away.

  53. What is interesting to me is asking for salary history is so artibrary. I have made over $200K (in sales) and much less. Much (most) has to do with realistic goals, the quality of the product/service you are selling and in some part, the economy. So if your last few jobs weren’t great for some of these reasons but historically you have earned more, what are you truly “worth”? You’re only as good as your last year/quarter in some cases? I actually hit 95% of my goal one year recently but only rec’d 60% of my OTE due to the crazy compensation plan so if I provide that to an employer, it’s defninitely not going to bode well for me. Also at that same place, I grew the business more than double in two years but no one seems to be interested in that…what people are basing decisions on seemed really warped these days.

  54. Company cleared my background.

    Gave me a offer letter.

    Came back and asked for w-2 for my last employer.

    I had them talk to two staff members from the previous employer.

    W-2 – I said no. They came strongly and I said no.

    So, I was suppose to start 11/15 and guess that is not going to happen.

    I strongly believe it was not for me. I am moving on.

  55. Massachusetts just passed a law making it illegal for potential employers to ask for salary history. If you don’t live in Massachusetts, work to get a similar law in your state.