can I include the value of my benefits when I talk about my current salary?

A reader writes:

I have an interview tomorrow and they’ve asked me to fill out the job application, as well as print two copies of my resume. On the application, it asks for my salary history. I’m reluctant to give this out because I’m afraid they’ll try to lowball me for an offer. I accepted my current job in 2011 in a terrible economy and know that I’m overqualified for it based on my experience and education.

My entire compensation with benefits is approximately $6k higher than my actual salary (by itself). I have the exact number because it says on my HR profile: “Company paid benefits represent an additional 15.20% of your annual compensation. Your total annual benefit and compensation is X.”

Would it be ok to put the higher number? If I got an offer and they called my current company to verify, I’m not lying, so would there be a problem with this?

No, it’s disingenuous. After all, if they offered you a salary of $75,000 and later told you, “Oh, it’s really $65,000 but the value of your benefits adds another $10,000,” wouldn’t you feel they’d lied to you? Plus, if they verify your salary with your employer (which many do), they’ll realize you misled them.

You’re better off either (a) declining to disclose your salary history altogether since it’s really none of their business anyway (and since you already have an interview, you’re more likely to get away with this) or (b) being honest and explaining why you’re worth more than your current salary.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

    1. KarenT*

      That’s what I do. My salary is X, but I wouldn’t leave my job for it because my benefits are pretty awesome. I always say my salary is X, but due to employer retirement savings contributions and annual bonuses, I take home Y every year.
      That being said, I’ve always wiggled out of answering this question because I don’t like it.

      1. RedStateBlues*

        right, or its a required field on an online application that only accepts numeric characters.

  1. FSP*

    Yea, my old employer did things weird and “monetized benefits.” If you decided you wanted to take advantage of all of the benefits, your biweekly take-home was less than someone that decided to take advantage of some or all of the benefits. If someone called to confirm my salary, it would have been my base pay plus the value of the benefits. I always thought it strange and was very careful when explaining it to my current (new) employer. It did make things really complicated though.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    I’ve wondered this as well. I’ve always put in my overtime and bonus (something like: Base: $xxx, package: $xxxx). However, I don’t get social security taken out of my paycheck and my company also adds 15% of my salary into a retirement fund (separate from the one I contribute to). It really adds quite a bit to my paycheck. Would it be ok to include this as well? Of course I would break it out and not claim it as part of my base.

    1. Anony*

      I think this is exactly the sort of scenario where, if you decide to reveal your current salary to a potential employers, it’s extremely valuable to be clear about the total compensation package (and being transparent about what is base salary and what is beyond that). Many employers contribute nothing to a retirement fund. The 15% you talk about is effectively a 15% higher salary!

  3. Ros*

    I’ve had relatively good luck explaining stuff like this during an interview.

    For example, when I interviewed for my current job, I had been working at a start-up and there hadn’t been money for raises for about 3 years, which I was straightforward about. I basically said, look, what I don’t have in raises right now I got in quality-of-life issues. I work from home several days a week, I have an extra 3 weeks of vacation per year, insurance is excellent, benefits, etc (insert everything that is not monetary but counts as a “benefit”). And I made it clear that I understood that I wasn’t going to get the same flexible arrangements at this company, which was fine, but that the salary needed to compensate for the quality of life benefits. In the end, the salary offer was a 50% pay raise from what I had previously had.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Bravo. Well played!

      OP, *if* your benefits package is particularly generous for the industry, then I’d wait until an offer is made to discuss it. Or, if salary is discussed in person or over the phone before the offer stage, you can mention it then. “I currently make $X, but we also have a great 401(k) package and blah blah blah, so I’m taking that into account when I decide what my next move is,” or something like that.

      If your benefits package is pretty standard, though, I think you’ll look naive bringing it up at all.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I’m glad you posted this. A couple weeks ago I went on my first interview in 17 years and everything was great until the CEO asked me the dreaded salary question of what I was making at my last job. I squirmed for a minute and told him I made $5k more than I actually made. When I went home I was kicking myself for lying, but then I thought about the schooling my former boss paid for, the fact I could work at home when needed, and take off whenever I needed to for an appointment, etc. Just the schooling alone accounts for the extra $5k. Probably more. So if the question comes up I am going to mention the schooling. And it wasn’t for one year, it was five years in a row.

    3. WorkingMom*

      I was also able to negotiate a higher salary on this topic. I left a non-profit with ridiculously amazing benefits (free) to work for a small, private company with decent, but definitely not free, benefits. After I received a verbal offer, and was asked to come in to accept/finalize details – I was able to explain that the salary offered would essentially be a pay cut due to the difference in free benefits vs. paying premiums. I was willing to make a lateral move (I really was) but I expressed that I couldn’t afford a pay cut. They met my needs and I ended up with essentially a small increase over the previous company. But I achieved my goal – I wasn’t looking for a big pay raise, I wanted to work at this company. I was a nervous wreck the whole time but I somehow managed to pull it off and it was the best move I ever made!

  4. Joey*

    Leave it blank. You already have an interview so the most they’ll probably do is ask in the interview.

  5. voluptuousfire*

    I would think “my base salary is x and benefits are y, so my total compensation package adds up to z” would be sufficient.

  6. Brett*

    My employer actually does pay as salary+benefits as well. They are required by ordinance to set the mid-band of total compensation at market median.

    In theory, our benefits are 80% of our salary. But the numbers are disingenuous. Vacation days are counted at full value, even though they are use them or lose them. Dental and vision plans are counted at the benefit values of the plan + tax savings, even though the employer pays none of the premiums (so, for example, if the dental plan has a $1500 max benefit and a $40 monthly premium, then it is valued as $1500 cash value plus a $480 tax deduction) . Pensions are valued at net present value of contributions.

    Not every employer does this with benefit calculations, but there are certainly plenty of ways to inflate benefit numbers.

    1. fposte*

      But in the public record of your salary (if I’m remembering correctly that you’re in category where it’s public record), does it include that compensation percentage or is it just the straight salary that’s listed?

      1. Brett*

        You can sunshine law every single line item of a paycheck, e.g. someone could find out how much money I put in my 457(b) if they wanted as well as vacation days, pension value, etc.

        The newspaper likes to published total cash paid for the year for each employee. All wages paid including overtime, plus travel reimbursement, tuition reimbursement, uniform allowances, etc.

        (Which gets really crazy for old sick pay system retirees, as their sick pay from their entire career is included when they retire; often landing them in really nasty news stories about what enormous leeches they allegedly are.)

  7. fposte*

    Yeah, that figure is the budget line for the position, not the compensation of record. They’re very different.

  8. Harryv*

    Oftentimes employers would not divulge into their exact benefits package until after you receive the offer. So I don’t see how you can negotiate benefits. As AAM said, benefits are oftentimes apples and oranges. It’s hard to put a monetary value to it.

    1. Joey*

      No. You can easily compare in a spreadsheet. You just have to quantify the value of each benefit. For example, if you get an offer you could ask for their last open enrollment handouts/handbook that frequently tell you the % of premiums the employee pays for benefits and the employee match to a retirement plan. Other benefits can be estimated based on their market value. There are very few benefits that can’t be valued.

    2. Sarah*

      You can ask for a benefits summary. Both my husband and I have done that with job searches (him before an offer, me after).

  9. Rich*

    The value of the benefits package is worth something. I’d go with stating your base salary (if you decide to disclose), but also mentioning that you have an above-average benefits package (if that’s the case). They may ask what that means, but it’s a good conversation to have so they know what they’re up against.

    I’m glad you’re thinking about this though. Some people just get lost in the salary number and end up with a lesser benefits package that effectively reduces that salary.

  10. CollegeAdmin*

    If it’s just a fill-in box, could you put $50,000+ (if your salary was $50K not including benefits)? You could then explain in person, if/when asked, that the + is meant to indicate your benefits, and then go on to explain how they affect your baseline.

  11. donbab*

    I’ve had employers include benefits, adding them to annual compensation, and using this value as total compensation in offer letters. I do believe that a previous emoyer who did this only disclosed the compensation when my salary was verified by new employer. It seems it was all in how the question was asked. Personally i think if employers add benefits to compensation and use that figure as an offer, then it would be logical to do the same when reporting said salary. On another note, I’ve yet to be able to avoid the expected salary range question!

  12. Bartleby*

    Any thoughts on whether/how to include an official, scheduled, but variable incentive payment in salary calculations? My company calculates this with a formula that multiplies factors for company performance , my performance and a target percentage of my salary.

  13. Interviewer*

    With candidates, I would absolutely explain the value of our benefits, and costs. We have a one-page info sheet that explains all benefits, which ones are employee and employer paid, and what the value is for each one. It helps people to go home and review it, compare it to their own benefits, and ask questions or make decisions based on that info, along with our salary offer.

    I have never asked for a salary history from candidates, but if I did, I would expect to see some split in salary & total comp packages from a savvy candidate. I would take that into account when making a salary offer, in addition to the market rates.

    I have also mentioned key pieces of my benefits package as tough to replace when interviewing for a new role for myself, and employers are generally willing to bump salary as consideration if they aren’t able to offer the same benefit for the same value. That’s happened twice for me.

    Hope that helps, OP.

  14. Sarah*

    My husband is running into this now. I accepted a job in another city, so he’s been looking too. When people, especially recruiters, ask how much he makes, he gives total paid compensation (salary + bonuses) and then talks about his generous benefits. In his field – electrical engineering – the way salary and bonuses break down can differ from company to company. He receives 19% of his compensation in bonuses, which I think is a lot – but I’m in nonprofits and we don’t get bonuses. His benefits are good too – employer pays for entire health insurance. He had 2 interviews with this one company and their benefits were terrible. I told him that if he liked the job, he should just negotiate more salary in lieu of the benefits he was letting go (free health insurance, more paid time off, etc.). I think it’s easier to talk about compensation in an interview versus writing it down on paper. But I think you also need to know what you want and then what you will ultimately take.

  15. Greg*

    To broaden the discussion somewhat, those silly paper applications that companies make you fill out before an interview are mostly just paperwork, and you should never spend too much time on them or worry about any specific fields. That includes salary history, references, college GPA, and worst of all, detailed descriptions of previous jobs (you already have my resume, do you really need me to transcribe it for you long-hand?)

    Obviously, you should never put anything false in writing, but outside of that, your application will most likely get tossed into a filing cabinet and never looked at unless there’s a problem, especially since most candidates won’t make it past the first interview anyway. If they move forward with you and ask for references, you can give them names at that time.

  16. Tammi*

    Hi. I had a fantastic interview this morning. I came to this company as an internal referral. I was suppose to test; but after interviewing, the manager of the department decided that she didn’t want to insult me by making me test. A couple of hours later, I recieved an email from HR asking me to provide my current salary info, along with three references. I responded by acknowledging receipt of the email. Ten minutes later, she responded to my acknowledgment by writing that she was glad and wondered if I could send her the salary information first, as they are working on possibly putting together an offer. My current salary is well below what I should be getting paid in my current job, which is the primary reason I am leaving. I would prefer to submit my salary expectations, along with three or more references. What is your opinion on this? Thank you.

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