Jim Hopkinson is an author, writer, and speaker living in New York City. His focus is on career development for the new economy, showing how new media, technology and branding are changing how people look at their career and lifestyle. Read more...
If revealing your current salary is the most common mistake job seekers make when negotiating salary, then the dreaded "Salary History" box on job applications is public enemy #1. Here at Salary.com, I don’t think we can give you enough case studies showing you examples of different ways you might handle this situation. Here’s one that came up with a recent client.
"Cheryl" is 25 years old, working in her second job at a major corporation, and got an interview for a really great job. As with many cases, with her interview pending the next day, she started freaking out when she realized that the topic of salary might come up. She had no idea how to handle the question, so we did a crash course phone call.
She had been given an employment application to fill out, and sure enough, they requested a job history, along with an area to disclose what her salary was at each position. How should she handle this?
1) Use her advantage
If Cheryl were applying to the job online, and was merely 1 of 500 candidates blindly going for the position, then she would have been at a disadvantage when filling out the form. By leaving it blank or dodging the question, there is a decent chance the hiring manager would dismiss her application because she didn’t answer the question outright. She never would have made it to the interview stage.
On the other hand, if she came in through a direct referral, such as a trusted friend of a friend, there’s a good chance she’d go right to the interview stage and not have to deal with the paperwork. This is why networking is such a crucial part of any job search.
This however, was a unique, hybrid situation. She came in through a referral and didn’t have to battle other candidates directly, but they sent her the application and asked her to fill it out and bring it with her in person to the interview.
I told her this was a huge advantage, since she could immediately address the topic in person if needed.
2) What to put on the form
Because this was a paper form, it meant that she wasn’t forced to write in a specific number. I advised her to fill it out as follows:
Note that the header was simply labeled "Salary," as opposed to "Starting Salary" and "Ending Salary," so technically didn’t request a specific number. Hey, we all know that the entire interview process is a bit of a game, and the rules of the game can sometimes be interpreted differently.
3) Legal concerns
Cheryl then brought up a legitimate concern. At the bottom of the application was some scary legal jargon. Something to the effect of:
I certify that all statements are true and complete to the best of my knowledge and that I have withheld nothing that would, if disclosed, affect this application unfavorably. [The Company] is authorized to investigate said statements, and any misrepresentation or omission will cause either refusal to hire or discharge whenever discovered.
She was worried that dodging the question would be an issue. Here’s my take:
4) What to say in the interview
OK, so she makes it to the interview, aces all the questions, and then the hiring manager leans back and says:
"Well Cheryl, sounds like you’d be a great fit here. I noticed you didn't fill out the salary section of the application, can you tell me what you're making at your current job?"
What I tried to emphasize was that she shouldn’t view this as a horrible, anxious moment to be afraid of, but rather an amazing opportunity to practice the negotiation skills she had just learned (at least the crash course version).
It’s really a change in mindset. Put aside the thoughts of "Oh no, they’re going to call me out on this, I’m in trouble" and instead think "Oh boy, this is my chance to address the salary issue in a professional, business-like manner and ensure that I get paid fairly."
She should respond along the following lines:
"Well, I'm really glad you brought that up, as I wasn't exactly sure of the best way to answer that. For the first job at Smith & Company, I was right out of college and you know how it is. You're just excited to get your foot in the door, so it was really entry level. I think the pay was in the mid $30s or something, and I gained a lot of great experience there." [Be vague but accurate. It shouldn’t matter and if you don’t put a lot of focus on it, neither should they].
For my current job at ABC Corp, it was a unique situation because I started out on a 6-month contract at an hourly rate with no benefits, had 2 different bosses, and we weren’t even sure what was going to happen after the program ended. [This was 100% true].
Luckily, although they did away with that group, I switched over to full time with benefits in a completely different department. To be honest I was just looking over the employment contract that I signed and there's a lot of confidentiality wording in there so I don't believe I'm allowed to reveal that information, which is why I didn't put a number. [This is also 100% true; ABC Corp was a private, family-owned company].
But what's most important is that I really want to focus on bringing my skills to THIS job and making an impact here. So while I've done a lot of research, if I can ask you, what type of salary range did you have budgeted for this position?"
In this manner, the hiring company reveals the salary range first, and you don’t get caught saying a number that is too high or too low.
5) Believe it
My last piece of advice was not only to practice those few lines repeatedly until they came out naturally and in her own words, but to truly believe in what she was saying. Everything she was saying was true, so she should confidently state her position.
But what if they push back? While you don’t want the conversation to turn confrontational, there is no law that says you need to reveal your past salary, so I recommended staying strong and using a similar response at least once more:
"Well, as I mentioned I did some compensation research in preparation for this interview so I have an idea of the range, and I'm not sure that my current salary is a true reflection of my value on the marketplace. It's tough for me to say what the value is until I learn more about the particulars of this job, is it ok if we continue talking more about that?"
While it’s never easy to hold your ground in a tense situation and navigating the dreaded salary history box on an application can be tricky, the right mindset and a few tips can give you the best chance to get paid at the highest end of the salary range.