What was your previous salary? You've seen that line on a job application. Or you have heard the question in an interview. And your heart might have sunk to the soles of your interview shoes.
"Why are they asking? Why is it their business?" Navy wife Arrianna asks. That's a good question. Why are they asking? Are you required to answer? And if you are, what are you supposed to say?
No matter where you are in your career, talking about your past pay can be a touchy subject. According to Nick Corcodilos, a professional headhunter and the author of Keep Your Salary Under Wraps and PBS's Ask The Headhunter column, no good can come from answering these questions. "If your value is really a function of judgment and need," he posits, "why would an employer care what you've been earning at your last job?"
'So What Did You Make At Your Last Job?'
Arrianna, who is currently in the interview stage for three different jobs, worries about how to handle the question. "I have dodged it twice," she says. "But now I have to fill out a formal application and there's a line that says "past salary" and I'm not sure what to answer."
"I'm hesitant to tell the truth," she admits. "Because I worked for less than I am worth at our last duty station. Why would I want them to think that's an acceptable wage for me?"
Mary, a Marine Corps wife, says she has always answered the question directly, but she is now rethinking her strategy. Having just PCSed to Northern Virginia with her husband, Mary was thrilled to look for work a step above where she had been working in rural North Carolina. "I was excited for the challenge and the increased pay," she said, "which is helpful when you live near D.C. It's expensive!"
Mary had every reason to hope she would be making more in her new position. Not only did the job she was applying for have increased responsibility, but prior to their PCS, she was about to be promoted into a similar position.
She walked away from her job with new skills and great recommendations. "I was hoping for at least $17.50," she said, so she applied to jobs in that range. When she made it to the interview process, she was thrilled. "I was so excited. I figured my application would go nowhere, but they called me in right away."
Then came that question: So what were you making before? With one quick, honest answer, Mary sold herself short.
Why You Shouldn't Answer
When questioned about her past compensation, Mary answered honestly. "I explained I was making $15.00 an hour," she said, "and they immediately offered me the job."
Mary was overjoyed, but the euphoria ended when she saw her proposed contract. "They wanted to pay me the same thing. For a harder job."
As Mary learned the hard way, the problem with answering questions about salary history is two-fold: First, your prospective employer immediately knows how your last employer valued you on their pay scale. Second, they also know that you are willing to work for that amount.
"A responsible, well-managed business shouldn't care what you've been earning," Nick reminds us. "What will matter to that company is whether and to what extent it needs your abilities; how much it can afford to pay you; and how much profit it projects you will bring to its bottom line. A smart company would never pay you based on anyone else's judgment of your worth, because that worth is relative."
How to Get Around the Question
Mary and Arrianna's situations are not unique. Military spouses are often forced to work in less-than-desirable job markets with less-than-desirable pay, which puts them at a real disadvantage when answering any questions about pay with a prospective employer.
"I just look like I'm not worth more, " says Arrianna. "And that isn't true. But they are going to want my pay information anyway."
So if you are going to be asked the question -- either by application or by recruiter -- how do you answer it without giving away the details?
"I redirect," says Deb, also a Navy wife. "I've been married for 21 years and I've worked all kinds of jobs. I have been asked this question a lot over the years, but I have never answered it straightforward. My worth isn't a number. So I redirect the question every time."
Instead of responding directly to the question, Deb suggests, offer the prospective salary range you are looking for. "This works," she says. "They ask you what you were earning at your last job, and you say something like, 'For this job search, I'm only looking at jobs only in the [blank] range."
Know What You're Worth -- And What They'll Pay
"Often, they drop it, and you don't have to say anything else, but you need to know that the number you just gave is a reasonable number for the position."
You can find comparable salaries in your field and region at sites like Payscale.com and Glassdoor.com, but chances are you have already seen a targeted range for the position for which you are applying. Offer a number in that range -- and not at the low end of it.
"If you ask for the low end, you'll get the low end," Deb laughs.
(Pro tip: Do your research! Recent college graduates are earning $16.60 an hour on average nationwide.)
"They want to pay you what you are worth to them and no more, so don't lowball yourself," she says. "They will do that anyway."
Even Deb admits though that sometimes, an interviewer will not let the question go so easily. "They'll push and say they have to know," she says. "Which isn't accurate, anyway. They legally don't need to know, and if you are a good candidate, they won't turn you away for not telling them."
Pass the Buck
When you are in that position and an interviewer presses for a number, try explaining that you are not in a position to actually discuss your earnings.
"I once had someone tell me to say that I can't talk about previous pay because of confidentiality issues," Deb says. "And that stopped the conversation in its tracks."
If you are being pressed to answer the question, you might want to try the same tactic: "I know it would be helpful for you to have that information, but my last employer took confidentiality very seriously, and I have to respect that."
You can even add a follow-up statement (something like "the compensation was more than fair, though") so they have some idea of what you were working with, but that is up to you.
If your future employer really wants to know what you made, they can always ask your previous employer when they check your references, but they cannot force you to answer the question.
"You can take a strong position with any employer by putting it all on the line," Nick says. "Tell the employer, 'Look, I won't tell you my past salary because I'd like to have an honest, fair negotiation based on what I can do to make your business more successful. If I can't demonstrate my value, then you should not make me an offer or hire me."
Arrianna says she is not sure she has the guts to say something like that. "It just sounds so strong! Like I know I'm the best person for the job," she says.
On that, she is right. But if you are applying to a job, you already know you will be good at it, and you probably think you are the right person for the job. If that's the case, the employer should take the time to listen. Even if what you are saying has nothing to do with your salary history.