Q: What should I do when a prospective employer asks for salary requirements or salary history in the resume or cover letter?
A: Defer and delay. Never be the first to say a number.
Employers will go to great lengths to try to get candidates to disclose their salary requirements first. As the buyer of a service - your time - they are trying to bring down the price they will pay by talking about numbers prematurely and by getting you to give up information first. This puts them at a significant advantage in the subsequent negotiation.
Every employer with a job opening has a budgeted range for that job. Some employers have a more sophisticated understanding than others about how much a job should pay, but regardless, they have a sense of what they will and will not pay for each job. That's the range, and they know it.
If you say a number first and are at the low end, it's bad for you in several ways. First, if you get the job, you're not going to get paid what the job is worth. Second, if you get the job, the employer might change the job description and give you less responsibility. Third, if you say a number that's too low, you could signal that your work is of lower quality than the job requires. And fourth, this disappointing negotiation could set the tone for your relationship with this employer. If they got the better of you at the beginning, they might do so again and again.
It's also bad if you go first and your number is too high. If you put a high number in your cover letter, you might not even get the interview. If you get the interview, the prospective employer will start from a position of sticker shock and will focus on ways to bring the number down rather than on the skills and experience you bring to the job. You will be hard pressed to get them to think of you as a rare find.
You should defer the conversation about money as long as possible. The longer you delay, the more time you can spend making the prospective employer believe you are the dream candidate whom they need to hire regardless of what it will cost. When it's time to talk about numbers, it should mean the company is about to offer you the job.
Many people believe they've got to be obedient and nice with prospective employers. When a prospective employer asks for something, many people figure they should give it. But with salary information, you don't get points for being nice.
If the ad says you have to put salary in your cover letter, don't answer the ad, or answer it without the salary information. Each time the employer asks you for your salary history or requirements, say you want to be paid the fair market value of the job. If they say they need to know what you're making now, respond that you don't see how it's relevant. If they want to talk about money before they even interview you, ask how you could possibly put a value on a job you haven't talked about yet. Don't be surprised if they ask repeatedly and apply continued pressure.
The bottom line about the bottom line is: If the job is right for you and you're right for the job, there is a fair salary range for the job that represents good-faith negotiation by both you and your employer. The salary negotiation sets the tone for how the employer will treat you in the future. If you set a precedent of undervaluing yourself or letting the employer take the upper hand, chances are that's the type of relationship you'll continue to have with the company. If, on the other hand, you remain professional and courteous yet firm about the salary conversation, you stand to create an impression that you are a valuable candidate who deserves to be treated fairly.
For more information and tips on the salary negotiation, see the Salary.com Negotiation Clinic.