how to avoid giving employers your salary history

Few parts of the job searching process cause job seekers more anxiety than discussions about salary: How much money should you ask for? Why won’t the employer name a number first? And worst of all: Will the employer want to tie your salary offer to what you’ve earned in the past, even if your past salary was low for your field?

This last one is cropping up more, with employers increasingly including salary history as a standard part of their evaluation of a candidate. And it’s no secret that employers are using this information to figure out what salary candidates would accept from them, which puts candidates in an unfair position and raises worries about leaving money on the table.

Of course, employers who inquire into salary history generally claim that they need to know what you’ve earned in the past because it helps them figure out how much you should be earning now, or so that they can screen out candidates who are earning far more than the position pays and presumably won’t want to take a pay cut. But neither of these reasons holds water. First, companies should be able to determine a candidate’s value for themselves; they don’t need to look to their competitors to tell them a candidate’s worth. And second, if they’re concerned that you’ll be unhappy with the salary they’re offering, they can solve that by posting their range up-front or ask you about your salary expectations rather than salary history. Demands to know your past salary are designed to give employers the upper hand in salary negotiations.

But the fact remains that they’re asking, so how should job seekers respond?

The best thing you can do when an interviewer asks about your salary history is to reframe the question into what salary range you’re seeking. After all, this is the more pertinent question! For instance: “I’m looking for a range of $45,000 to $55,000.” In some cases, this answer will be accepted and the conversation will move on. But in others, the interviewer will insist on knowing your previous salary. If that happens, you can try responses like:

  • “I keep that information confidential, but the range I’m looking for now is…”
  • “My previous employers have always considered that information confidential, but I’m seeking….”
  • “That’s not something I share with anyone but my accountant, but I’m seeking…”

Most interviewers are going to stop pushing at this point. But if an interviewer insists, you’ll need to decide whether you’re willing to hold firm (and potentially risk losing the job opportunity over it) or if you’ll give in. If you’re in a situation where you have plentiful options, you might decide that you’re not interested in working for an employer who would reject you for not disclosing your personal finances. But if you don’t feel you have many options, then you might decide that – annoying as this is – you’re going to play along. But with most interviewers, it shouldn’t come to that point.

However you decide to handle this, keep in mind that there’s one option that you shouldn’t risk: lying. If you decide to talk about your past salary, you need to be accurate, since if employers find out later that you lied, they can and will yank job offers over that. In fact, an employer can even fire you after you’ve been hired if someone finds out you lied in your application materials. As part of their offer paperwork, some companies will ask candidates for W-2s or other documentation of the salary numbers they gave. So if you do decide to tell, don’t lie.

 I originally published this article at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Ash*

    Thank you for this!

    This advice all seems to be for when you’re asked directly in an interview. What about when you’re given a form to fill out “in application” and expected to fill out in full. Should you just leave this blank and risk them not offering the job for not following directions? I worry that I lost out on the job I was a finalist for because my current salary is high (I knew I’d have to take a pay cut for that job and was willing to do so) and I stupidly included it on the application form since I was told I was required to fill it out in full.

      1. Stephanie*

        Or it won’t let you. I tried to fill in $0 (and then $1) and a system bounced both back as an invalid amounts.

        1. Andrew*

          I leave it blank if I can. Sometimes I put negotiable or open, if it will allow those inputs. If it insists on a number, I try to enter 0, if it will allow that. As a last resort, I put in my salary.

    1. Anon*

      Related to this, how do you fill in a “starting salary/ending salary” box when you earned overtime and a bonus that added a significant amount to your salary? The field won’t let me write (as an example) “50,000, including overtime and bonus,” but it will let me write “42,000+.” What do you guys think would be best?

      1. Anon*

        I should add that this is for a supplemental application page that I need to bring to an in-person interview this week – it’s not just for a general online application.

        1. Eric*

          If you are bringing in to an interview, can you hand-write it on whatever you print out? But otherwise, since overtime and bonus are on your W-2, I’d say you would be safe to include them.

  2. Kara*

    It seems pretty common these days to be asked “What are your salary requirements?” within the first 10 minutes of a phone pre-screen interview!

    This drives me bananas because the cost of health insurance seems to vary widely with employers. Also, other “perks” like an employer paying my cell phone bill plus gym memberships equals about 1500 a year. And if there is no 401k match? My “range” increases by a few thousand.

  3. The Other Dawn*

    I have a question. What if the last company you worked for (for 15 years) is now out of business? Would an employer still be able to check your salary? I’m not advocating lying to an employer. Just curious if there any way to check salary other than asking a candidate for documents they may or may not have handy.

    1. Dan*

      They can always ask you for W2 forms from years past. It’s expected that you’ll have 7 year’s worth from you tax records, right?

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I know they can ask for that stuff, but what if, say, someone just moved and all that stuff is packed away or it was lost in a fire. Would employers make a person get copies of that stuff or would they have another way to verify. If the company is out of business it’s not like they can call the employer.

  4. ThursdaysGeek*

    There is one advantage to being grossly underpaid: “I’m looking for at least $x, which is a reasonable amount for my experience and in this location. Because of layoffs, I ended up in a job that pays quite a bit less than that, but it’s a good job otherwise. I’m not interested in leaving my current job for anything less than that.” I doubt I’ll get more than $x, but I’ve made it clear that I won’t accept any less either. The danger is that they will think I’m somehow defective for working for so little, so I will need to be amazing in the interview.

  5. Jack*

    I’ve thought of an unusual response to the salary question, but I’m not sure if it is out of line. I’ve never been in a position to try it, and I’m not sure I would if I was, but I am interested in your position on this.

    Essentially, when they ask the question, I would provide my previous salary, politely and succinctly. Then, I would ask what the salary was for the person previously employed in the position they are considering me for. I feel like if they are asking for my previous history, I can ask for theirs, and this equalizes the field a bit, without coming across as antagonistic or demanding. It also gives me a good idea of how much I might be able to expect if I accept the job and work there for a while.

    Or is my read off?

      1. scrapdog69*

        Sure, then couldn’t you say, “Due to confidentially agreement, I am unable to divulge my salary history”

  6. Goofy posture*

    When I was negotiating my current job, they asked me what I was making at my job at the time (at a university). I told them, but quickly followed with the value of the fantastic employer contributions to retirement AND pointed out I had more job security than a government employee, “… so I’m looking for a salary closer to X in my next position.” They bumped up their offer on the spot, so I think that worked out okay.

  7. Stephanie*

    As much as I hate USAJOBS, I will concede this is one thing it does correctly. You know the salary range for the position upfront and the posting’s pretty clear the upper range is for more experience, advanced degrees, etc.

    1. Tiff*

      That’s the bonus of working for gov, even local. The downside of that is that everyone “thinks” they know what you make. I had one co-worker say that to me, and I asked him how he knew. He said that our salaries are open to all, and that he knew I was making “x” amount. Well, that range can cover 3ok-40k between the lowest grade and the highest grade in that category. If he knew my real salary his feelings would be hurt.

      1. Stephanie*

        I know for federal jobs, there’s a database where you can find exact salaries. It was a little eerie finding out exactly what friends make. I think the caveat was that DoD salaries weren’t included.

  8. Ollie*

    I recently interviewed for a position where the pay was advertized as $x/hr, no benefits or anything else. They actually asked me how much I got paid for every job on my resume though (and they took notes!). I was confused. Why would my previous pay matter if they were straight up offering $x/hr?

    I’ve only had two not well paying jobs and the rest were unpaid internships, so it was embarrassing. They joked, “I guess it’d be nice to get a paying job, huh?” I’m not sure if they’re going to interpret my unpaid history as making me desperate for a paying job or what.

  9. Gjest*

    I hope there are enough readers who are in a position to change this practice. Is there anyone here who has been able to change a crappy hiring practice at their company because of something they have read here? I hope so!

    1. the gold digger*

      Not a change to hiring practices, but I like to think I was instrumental in getting my Fortune 100 company (former employer) to cover birth control pills (they covered viagra but not bcp?) and dental implants because of the logical arguments I presented to the head of benefits.

    2. NylaW*

      I work closely with HR and I have brought up a lot of these things. Most of the HR staff, and our recruiter, agree that these things are awful or stupid, but our HR director… well, he’s… yeah.

  10. FP*

    Question: how do you handle this when you move internally in a large organization? Background: I was hired for my current role in university administration with a BA and a few years of experience. Over the past few years I’ve earned two different M.Ed.s and am currently applying for other internal positions. I’ve heard rumors of this institution basing new position salaries based on your current salary (ex: no more than a 10% raise at a time). Since HR knows what I make now and seems to have these dumb policies – is there any way around a lowball offer if I am offered a significant promotion?

  11. David Hunt, PE*

    When someone asks me, my typical answer is “I’m looking for a salary range of X to Y”. I then get told that this is not the question they asked.

    “I’m not trying to be adversarial, but that’s private information; could you please explain how my salary from a different company in a different industry is relevant to what you’ll offer me based on the demonstrated history of value creation I have?’

    1. EngineerGirl*

      This. Sometimes you just need to (kindly) throw it back on top of them in a “I’m trying to get you the info you need” type of response. That’s why asking “why do you need this info?” is important.

  12. Brandy*

    On the flip side, I’ve been bring for a position with a very wide salary band. I like to know how the candidate values his/herself. If I say “this role pays anywhere from 75-125k depending on experience…and if I really like you I can probably beg HR to bump my ceiling”. But if someone with only a few years experience hears that and expects $120k, they’re not only mistaken but also delusional.

    1. Windchime*

      But a candidate’s expectations for this job (the one she is interviewing for) may have nothing at all to do with her salary at her previous job. That’s the thing. If I’m a skilled employee working at a place who notoriously pays crappy wages, that doesn’t automatically make me worth less to you, the new employer. I should be evaluated on the basis of my experience and my skills, *not* on what my last (crappy) employer paid me.

  13. Stephanie*

    I’ll probably ask this again in the open thread Friday, but I figured this was relevant here as well.

    So I’m in the second round in a job interview process (yay!). Did a phone screen and was then asked to fill out a more in-depth application that asked previous salaries (couldn’t get around disclosing that, unfortunately) and my desired salary (also couldn’t get around disclosing that).

    Thinking back, I’m worried my desired salary I suggested might be too high (no range was posted on the position). It’s definitely a big jump from my old salary, especially when you factor in that my old salary was in an expensive area (DC) and the (potential) new salary would be in a much cheaper area (SE Michigan/Detroit). There are transferrable skills from my old position, but the industries are unrelated. I also don’t have an advanced degree, which is preferred (but not required).

    So…do I try and go back and change the salary? Stand my ground? HR passed me on without questioning, so clearly my request wasn’t that stratospheric (it may have been like $5-7k too high). Did some research on salary websites (semi-useless) and waiting to hear back from a friend who works in the same industry at a similar level.

    Argh. And this is why I wish these salaries would just be posted upfront.

    1. Windchime*

      That doesn’t sound outrageously high. If you realized you were $50k over, that could be a problem but in my opinion, they should see $5-7K as within the range of negotiability (if that’s not a word, it probably should be).

    2. businesslady*

      yeah, I think the biggest worry on their end would be whether or not you’d be willing to accept a lower salary, &/or how long you’d stick around if they couldn’t give you your stated number. but if you demonstrate enthusiasm in the interview, I’m betting the worst-case scenario is that any job offer might include a caveat regarding the amount.

      & if they DID react negatively–“how dare she think she’s worth $X9; we would never pay her more than $X0!”–then that’s probably a red flag about the company as a whole.

  14. Jennifer M.*

    I have spent the past 14 years working for government contractors. Everything we do is based on salary history because we typically have reimbursable contracts from the gov’t and each bill rate has to be approved by them in advance. There is a special government form for this to be signed by an individual and the proposing contractor that documents salary history, consulting history, and degrees. As someone who signs this form on behalf of my company, I can be held criminally liable if there is any information that is later found to be false. I’m so used to everyone and their brother knowing my salary because they have been involved in the gov’t approval process that if I switch to the private sector, I might not know how to behave. . .

    1. Lance*

      That sounds odd to me then, as I recently took employment for a company that has a position working as a government contractor and when I was interviewed, my previous salary history was never asked about (lucky me I guess). The only way I could see this being forced is for contracts under the department of defense connected to security clearance and background checks.

  15. Greg*

    I once had an HR screen where I was asked salary expectations, gave them, had the HR manager tell me what the range for the position was (and it was in line with what I had just said), and THEN he asked for my previous salary. I initially balked on general principle — my salary had been slightly below my range, but the increase would have been perfectly reasonable for a new job — but eventually told him. Whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth (and oh yeah, I didn’t get the job).

    In the future, I decided, in a situation like that I’ll just smile and say, “I was making slightly less than that.” I think the key is not to be confrontational, and to give them SOME information. Usually, interviewers in this situation just want some sort of number so they can fill in a box.

    1. AtWill*

      “My salary ask is $X, which is about a 10-15% bump over what I’m currently making”. Leaves some leeway, and I think they’re just really interested in how much of a bump you want. I think that they’re just making sure that they’re making the lowest possible offer they can that you will accept.

  16. SP*

    I’m glad I found this thread! I have recently been asked to complete an employment application. It is the standard $start pay / $end pay. While I am salaried, I am entitled to overtime and I work A LOT of overtime. My annual base salary is about $5k less than what I make. How can I address that in the application? I thought about including an asterisk and adding a statement, but I am not sure what to say. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter ;but I don’t want to give the impression that I am highballing my salary expectations.

  17. Rebecca*

    I think if candidates continue to provide salary history, the next question from prospective employers will become, “what are the details of your current benefits package?” and then, “what are the specific projects you worked on?” and nothing will be confidential. Thanks for this post, I was approached by a recruiter and I refused to provide my current salary, citing confidentiality. I gave him my target range and got a phone interview, which led to a request for an in-person interview. I’m getting ready to submit the job application minus my salary history. They said nothing could be left blank, so I assume that’s what they’re talking about. The process may stop here!

  18. Lena*

    I put start salary 14 hourly and salary end 14,5 but actually is 14,42.Did I do a big mistake?
    Thank you

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