I was offered an interview — until they found out my current salary

A reader writes:

I’m a year out of undergrad, and spent the first year in a job that pays well and has great work-life balance, but the work itself is heavily administrative and I hate it.

I studied/interned as a writer and editor and have hoped to find my way into editorial/magazine type positions. I’ve been looking for opportunities in my city (D.C.) and found a editorial assistant position that I am completely qualified for. So I submitted my resume and cover letter and heard back within a day with an invitation to have a preliminary phone interview.

The HR rep also requested that I give my salary history and a potential range for their position. I had already avoided the question on their application because I knew that my current salary would cause them to screen me out. (I work at an organization that pays entry-level much more than most other places in D.C., especially in comparison to nonprofits.) Not wanting to annoy the HR rep, I replied with my salary and said that I would like to speak further about the job before naming salary requirements. I also gave him the time that I would be available for a phone interview, based on the availability he had given me for two days away. He then didn’t reply.

After I sent a follow-up email, he replied that my salary was too high and I was not going to be considered but that my resume would be kept for any higher position that may arise. However, put beside any candidate for the next level position–assistant editor–I’m clearly under-qualified. I am fully aware that I would have to take a substantial pay cut, but their salary range (which he finally told me) would still allow me to afford my apartment and I knew that the experiential pay off would be well worth it in the long run. So I replied that I understood that the salary would be much lower but I’m still very interested and would still like to speak with him about the job. He has not replied and I suspect that I will not hear anything more from him.

My question is simply this: how can I reply to prevent this from happening in the future? It seems like he thought I was a great candidate until he found out my current salary. I understand that it’s normal to screen for salary but I’ve made it clear that I’d find the experience more valuable the my current job (salary included) and I’m still being shut out.

Well, I think a big part of the problem was that you supplied your salary history but deliberately didn’t say what salary you’re seeking now, even though they specifically asked that. And look, I totally understand not wanting to get into that without knowing more about the job (and it annoys me when employers ask at such an early stage, as I’ve talked about here), but in this case it worked against you.

When you know that your current salary is going to make you look outside an employer’s range and you choose to share it anyway, you’re shooting yourself in the foot unless you pair it with a clear statement about what range you’re seeking now (or at least a clear statement that you understand you’ll be taking a pay cut and you’re fine with that). Otherwise, the info you’re giving them is going to convey that you’re too expensive.

I know that you did try to address it in a later exchange, but it sounds like at that point he’d already written you off. Saying it up-front might not have prevented that, but it would have given you a better shot.

As for how to prevent it in the future: First and foremost, don’t be so quick to share your salary history, which is no one’s business but your own. That’s going to take care of the whole problem right there. But if you’re in a situation where you feel like you need to share it, it’s crucial to pair it with a clear statement like, “But my goal is to work in a role like X, and I understand I’ll be taking a pay cut to do it. I’m completely fine with that because I know that it’s the nature of the field.”

You still may encounter employers who are skeptical that you’ll really be okay with a pay cut long-term, but it’ll give you your strongest chances of overcoming those concerns.

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. a*

    I’m currently in a similar position — working as an attorney in BigLaw, but looking to move in-house to a corporation which will involve taking a significant salary. Whenever I’m asked about current salary, I include a statement like “… but I recognize that the law firm model is very different than the compensation model for corporations, so I don’t expect this opportunity to match that.” When you know you’re taking a paycut, I think you have to reflexively explain why past/current salary shouldn’t disqualify you.

    1. bridget*

      This should be pretty easy to convey, because I think corporations hiring for in-house jobs know very well that a lot of their pool will be people who are fleeing the biglaw grind, and are happy to take a pay cut to do it.

      1. a*

        Very true for the attorneys, but not so true of the HR staff/recruiters doing the initial screening. So far it hasn’t been an issue as long as I address it on the front end, though.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    There is absolutely no legitimate reason an employer needs to have a salary history.  None.  

    The illegitimate reason is because they want to see how much they can lowball you versus how much the position is actually worth.  What’s worse is that basing salary off previous positions contributions to the wage gap for women and minorities.  

    The worst case scenario I ever saw was a government agency that based starting salary on previous salary.  One department ended up with people all over the salary scale — one person making as much as $20K more than everyone else — when all employees did the same level and amount of work with the same hours.

    What’s odd here, OP, is that I’ve never seen the salary history tactic work in the other direction, i.e. disqualifying someone for making too much.  

    1. BRR*

      It’s also terrible because so many people are underemployed. My husband was working retail for minimum wage. The job he ended up getting asked for a masters degree. If they operated based off of previous salary were they going to offer him $12 bucks an hour?

      1. Stephanie*

        That’s my fear! I’m doing more white collar work now, but am still way underpaid considering what I’m doing. I do worry some unscrupulous company would be like “Hey, but this is more than you’re making now…”

      2. Another Museum Person*

        I work in an industry where the going rate even with a masters is 12-15 an hour in many places. So, it would depend on the degree and the industry.

      1. KMS1025*

        me too…many years ago and it still stings…job seemed perfect, i could walk to work…people were nice…and then the past salary issue took me right out of the running…they said i would not be happy for very long at the diminished pay :-(

    2. Beezus*

      I’ve seen it work the other way, too. If all of the experienced engineers you’re screening for openings make more than your range, you recently lost a few who were willing to disclose that their new salaries elsewhere were higher, and waitaminute, you’ve had an uptick in engineer turnover lately, maybe it’s a sign that your range is below market. (I got a nice salary adjustment a few years ago because a similar sequence of events led my HR team to research market rates in my field and conclude we needed to bump salaries up to keep the people they still had.)

    3. Gandalf the Nude*

      My boss, the HR director, presented a reason that, on its face, seems not so nefarious, but definitely cynical. He asks for salary history so that he can verify it with previous employers as kind of a honesty litmus test. I can understand the thinking, but 1) there are ways for a good reference checker to find out about integrity without asking about salary history, and 2) plenty of dishonest people are smart enough to see that test coming and circumvent it, which means it’s not even a fool-proof test and you’ll need to do #1 anyway and kind of makes the test a waste of time.

      No one is getting hurt in salary negotiations because he at least agrees that salaries should be based on the company’s budget, not how past employers valued the candidate. In fact, I don’t think he requires the salary history until offers have been made. Even so, it still gives me the impression of someone in a relationship with trust issues putting their SO through some bull scrimp test.

        1. Gandalf the Nude*

          Sorry, poor phrasing. By offer made, I mean that we’ve formed an offer, not that it’s been extended to the candidate. But even so, how would a candidate know that the offer was done before the salary history? If I’d gone through that process, I’d definitely be suspicious.

          I’m not really sure how he’s explaining it, since I’m not involved in the hiring process until all of this has been completed, and this only came up in passing the other day. He might be blaming our parent company, who, to be fair, loves their data, but it sounded like this has been his practice for a while, and I don’t know how he could have justified it at previous companies. I also have no idea what he’d do if he did find someone who lied but had already accepted an offer.

          But yeah, I agree, it’s really weird. I’ll try pushing back next time it comes up.

      1. Ad Astra*

        This is a particularly bad litmus test for honesty, imo, because the information is irrelevant, yet personal and really not a potential employer’s business. I’m an honest person but I’d be tempted, even likely, to lie about my salary in these situations (especially on a form). I would never lie to my boss about work or withhold information he/she needed to know, but I don’t think it’s wrong to lie when someone asks you an inappropriate question. That goes double for situations like this, where my salary might be negatively affected by honestly answering an invasive, rude, unacceptable question.

        1. Sparkly Librarian*

          I wouldn’t lie about it, but there’s also a difference between what I think I make and what the company thinks I make. (This came up when applying for a job a few years back and also when applying for a mortgage.) When you quote a round annual number, does that include all bonuses? What about the raise you got midyear – do you give the new number that reflects what you WILL have earned after a full year at that level? Do you base it on last year’s W-2? Does that figure include all of the money the company paid you, or just your taxable income? Even if you make $XX/hour, what if you’re non-exempt and have worked overtime in the last couple pay periods? Your paystubs won’t match up exactly to what you say you’re earning, even if the hourly rate matches.

          If an offer is contingent upon that information matching exactly what HR at my current employer tells the new employer, I could be in some hot water even if I’d represented myself honestly and with the best of intentions. (In my situations, the recruiter asked me a couple of times if my $ figure was correct; the second time I clarified that I had included quarterly bonuses because they made up my total compensation. The mortgage lender made me give 3 months of paystubs instead of just 1 so she could document how my income fluctuated – never below 40 hours, but sometimes more at the time-and-a-half rate.)

          1. baseballfan*

            This is a good point and a good reason this is a silly question for prospective employers to use as an honesty test. There could theoretically be a half dozen or more answers that could reasonably be accepted as correct.

      2. RMRIC0*

        I am also baffled by the fact that previous employers would even share that information.

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      I agree but its going to be a while before it becomes the norm not to do it that way unfortunately. It seems the hiring companies have no idea what a good market price actually is for a given position and/or they’re too lazy to figure it out, especially since job titles aren’t as clear cut as they used to be. Post-recession I think a lot of people are doing mash-ups of several jobs

    5. Steve G*

      I was always told that showing steady increases in salary, especially at the same job, would make you look like a good candidate. Yet another thing that isn’t worth a damn in this current job market. Heck, I got raises at quite a few past jobs, including $30K over 5 years at past job, and it hasn’t helped a damn, apparently, in this job hunt.

      I also used to think that employers could use salaries as a gauge of someone’s responsibility, but that is also something that has proved pretty useless IMHE, especially after the salary list was leaked at past past co and so many of the salaries were all over the place, and I had no clue where ½ of them came from, and I thought how useless those #s would be in setting a future salary. I mean, they weren’t off by crazy amounts, but there were things like one person making $55K for doing purely routine admin work, while someone made $60K and had huge amounts of responsibility (the type of job where you’d worry about it after hours, and have to come in every day and set your own agenda or fail), was the POC for main customers, and lots of difficult decisions to make.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Ah yes. During my last search it seemed as though the old “we’ll offer him/her 5k over last job” became “we’ll offer 5k less than last job.” and that probably gets lower the longer the candidate is unemployed cuz of course they’re gonna take advantage of someones desperation. I feel for you!

        1. Steve G*

          Not to mention the pay-less-because-theyre-probably-desparate thing isn’t logical. Logical would be pay-more-because-they-need-to-make-up-for-a-worse-financial-situation

          1. Reasonable*

            It works both ways. Some employees are overpaid because the employer is desperate. Some are underpaid because they are desperate. Look at it from both sides instead of just one.

        2. Dan*

          At an aggregate level, if you have no job, then the market value for your particular skillset is a bit of an unknown. If they’re paying you less than your last job paid you, and you take the job, both you and your employer have agreed on what the market rate is for your skills.

          And yes, long term unemployment can indicate that a candidate over-estimates the value of his skills in the market place. If I made $100k at my last job and get laid off, how many $80k-$90k offers should I pass up hoping for another $100k offer? For that matter, how many $100k offers should I pass up hoping for a $105k-$120k offer?

          These are all tough big picture questions, and I think that very little of it has to do with any single employer picking me out of a crowd and lowballing me “because I have no other choice.” If I truly have no other choice, then that says the demand for my skills isn’t very high. If there is demand for my skills, then I have choices, and job or no job, no single employer can lowball me because the others are willing to pay market rate to get my services.

          1. RateCarver*

            >If they’re paying you less than your last job paid you, and you take the job, both you and your employer have agreed on what the market rate is for your skills.

            This assumes an equal bargaining position, doesn’t it? In the Real World, the market rate of all skills is however much money it takes to avoid eviction, regardless of their true worth, because when the landlord comes knocking, you either pay up or are out in the snow. You can get a nuclear physicist for minimum wage if they don’t own where they sleep — your only real risk is that another company will steal them away from you for a slightly higher rate. While they might, it’s generally bad business practice to engage in a wage war over employees, the same way it’s bad business to engage in a price war over customers. The employee or customer benefits, but at the expense of the businesses. There’s more money to be made by doing things a different way, and most businesses know this.

      2. Aunt Vixen*

        showing steady increases in salary, especially at the same job, would make you look like a good candidate

        Alas: does that mean you’re an unattractive candidate if your employer’s budget was frozen for five years (not so much as a COLA from 2008-2013)? Sigh.

      3. Ad Astra*

        I’ve never heard that, but I guess it makes sense, especially in some industries. On the other hand, some industries/workplaces have raises built in (like teachers), so it would only reflect that someone is not bad enough to get fired or unlucky enough to get laid off. Of course, a truly incredible teacher with 10 years’ experience makes the same as a deeply mediocre teacher with 10 years’ experience. :-/

        I worked for two different news organizations over a period of four years. I never got a raise, nor was I explicitly denied a raise, nor did I ever hear of any of my coworkers receiving (or being denied) a raise, nor did I hear about any of my former classmates working at other news orgs receiving (or being denied) a raise. The only way to make more money in that industry is to get promoted.

      4. Retail Lifer*

        Since I work retail, and retail is bleeding out, I’ve had no or minimal raises at most of my jobs for the past 5 years despite having excellent performance evaluations. I HOPE no one is using that as a determination without asking for the facts first.

      1. Annonymouse*

        Dang phone reception!

        Being asked about salary history. We just don’t do it here. We post salary ranges in job ads and people select in or out based on that (plus the other regular factors – duties, commute etc).

        What does it matter what I earned at teapots inc? What matters is what teapots ltd thinks their job is worth and if it’s within my expected/desired salary range.

        Yay on Massachusetts for banning that silly question.

    6. Reasonable*

      You’re kidding, right? You don’t think employers want to know if they are in the ballpark before they waste their time interviewing you and making an offer to you, while possibly foregoing other opportunities to hire employees who would accept something in their salary range?

  3. T3k*

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen more and more job applications requiring you to list your salary history, and one in particular said in their final notes at the end that if you did NOT list your salary history, they wouldn’t even look at your resume.

    I’m in the opposite boat from the OP (hourly wage that’s just a few dollars above min.) and so it makes me cringe when I list my salary and then what I’d like my salary to be since it’s almost double what I currently make, I can just see them going all bug eyed at it (even though, in reality, the expected salary is average for my field, my area, and my level of experience. I just took my current job to not be unemployed).

    1. Ali*

      I just had a phone interview today where I had to not only give my salary requirement, but include a salary history on my resume. So I had to write out my usual resume descriptions/accomplishments and then write salary: $XX,000. I don’t really understand the need for that on a resume.

      1. Kyrielle*

        …what do they do if you didn’t keep a record of your salary at each position/level/year? Because I wouldn’t be able to supply that….

        Not that I’m looking, just that I’m staring in horrified fascination. :)

    2. Steve G*

      I don’t mind giving it but a few 1st round phone screens have gotten awkward w/ (very young, presumably less experienced) HR Reps at this part. It’s like they think we are all wasting out time because they can “only” offer $10K less. I wish it didn’t get awkward, but its coming from them, not me. Maybe they are uncomfortable with salary discussions, IDK, but $10K or so drop isn’t a huge deal to some people. Not to mention that I worked my way up into a senior contributor level at past Co and don’t expect to start at the same level anyway, and 2nd of all….at a certain point, its not making a big difference in your paycheck anyways! And that is all that matters. Yes, $5K+ sounds great, but in reality, its like $75 or so dollars more a week, which may not matter if you live in an expensive city. It might just mean one night less in a restaurant. I wish they didn’t assume it would be a problem.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        I think there is more potential for awkwardness on the part of the screener if you are/were making MUCH more than they are. They don’t know how to contextualize the reasonableness of your willingness to make less. Someone making $15/hour (about $30,000/year) probably can’t/won’t consider a $10,000 pay cut, because it would mean a total change in their lifestyle – in a lot of cases, they wouldn’t be able to afford the basics they currently have. Someone making $120,000 can often absorb that $10,000 without worrying because it’s a much smaller portion of their salary.

    3. BRR*

      I’m in the fortunate enough position that I can ignore instructions to list my current or expected salary in my cover letter or resume. Although they probably think I just ignored their instructions. Maybe I should write that I’m protesting.

    4. Applesauced*

      When ads say they won’t be considered without salary history, I put in my salary EXPECTATIONS. They really don’t want to know what I make, they want to know what I’m looking for.

      1. YourOwnPersonalCheeses*

        Does this work, as far as getting responses/interviews? I’d be afraid the employer would think, “Hmm, can’t follow instructions. Next!”

  4. The IT Manager*

    This sucks! I ‘m sorry it happened to you. What I would have done differently is not mentioned my current salary but told him the range I was looking for. This way he might be annoyed, but he wouldn’t form the wrong opinion of your salary expectations. What you gave him was just enough for him to form the exact wrong opinion.

    This person subscribes to the belief that people only change jobs for the same or higher salary. I do not understand where that belief comes from. I understand it generally but there are plenty of people that are willing to take pay cuts for reasons such as yours.

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      Yes, exactly. Our current secretary took quite a pay cut coming to work for us, but she hated where she was working, and the pay cut was well worth it to her to go work in a more functional work environment. I, too, have had jobs where I would have taken a pay cut to get out of there. For many people, the choice of where to work is not only about salary.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        I was laid off from a job I really liked but where I was scandalously underpaid (though admittedly with great benefits) and, as I mentioned above, went without so much as a cost of living increase for five years of budget freezes. I’d been lucky to be able to get my ducks in a row just in case, so the day after I was laid off I accepted a new job with a 30% bump (though admittedly closer to 15% when you factor in the ho-hum benefits) and a 2% COLA over that after just a few months because raises were tied to the calendar rather than to employees’ hire dates. Nine months later I took an 11% pay cut to get out of that ill-fitting lifeboat and I’m so much happier.

      2. Dan*

        I’ve been lucky enough to spend my professional career in mostly functional work environments. I dream about the big dollars when I leave here, but the real question is, “How much BS do I have to put up with for that, and do I want to do that?”

        It’s kinda like your coworkers grousing that they’re underpaid. If they’re really underpaid, why aren’t they moving on?

        1. Apollo Warbucks*

          I was under paid in my last role by at least 30% it took in a year to find a new role worth moving for, I was still not best pleased in the mean time.

        2. Slippy*

          In this hiring environment a lot of the time it take a while to get hired. Also they might be getting underpaid due to the locality. Some places have such an excess of a skillset that it has devalued the local market.

    2. the gold digger*

      Was with a friend who used to be director-level HR at Major Chicago Food Company. She is now HR VP at a bank and just hired a new guy. He moved for a slight salary cut – although my friend chastised the hiring manager because they had agreed on an even salary and then called the guy herself to say they were matching his salary.

      She didn’t feel bad about not offering more than his current salary, though. “We offer a week more of vacation time, our benefits are better, and his commute has just been halved. He is still coming out ahead.”

    3. BRR*

      While I don’t believe in divulging your salary I think the LW should have at least said they knew it would be a cut from the start. The LW also errored in giving their current high salary and no range.

    4. TootsNYC*

      At my previous job, I made two good hires where I hired someone who took a paycut. I had a maximum amount I could offer (it was a market-appropriate amount), and I offered it.
      They were each of them unhappy enough where they were that they were willing to take the cut. It wasn’t huge, but it was definitely a cut. They both stayed a long time.

    5. Daisy*

      Yes, my immediate response was also ‘this sucks’. The right way round would have been to give the range but not current salary, but I can completely see why the OP thought it through wrong at the moment of replying, if they wanted to cooperate.

  5. Entry Level Stuff*

    Well, it sounds like maybe she wasn’t sure what a realistic Salary range was for a type of position like this. She is entry-level after all, and if she under-assumed she risks cutting off her nose…

    I’ve done the same thing. I went from external contractor to an internal, benefitted employee and knew it would mean a pay cut. So, when I had that question (which I avoided in the online applications) and couldn’t avoid it, I would say “I currently make X, but I realize that I am an external contractor. There are many aspects to a position that factor into the pay, and I would consider the entire package and would want to make sure it was a fit for my needs. I’m not naive and I realize I will be taking a pay cut in order to take a lateral move, but I would expect that the entire compensation package value to be in the range of what I’m making currently.”

    That usually worked really well. Obviously you’re not going from internal to external but you could substitute benefits in your mind with experience.

  6. Bee Eye LL*

    We interviewed several candidates last year for a job that pays just under $40k and we had one guy who had previously made somewhere in the low six figures with a major food company, but had relocated to be near his wife’s dying parent. He talked about his sports cars and how his house was paid for, etc.

    We got the impression that as soon as his in-law kicked off, he would relocate. So we didn’t hire him despite being quite qualified. That can be the worry that someone might be just looking for “something to do” or use a place as a career stepping stone and so they won’t hire you.

    1. Anna*

      I can see the logic there since it was such a significant difference, but in reality aren’t all positions essentially a career stepping stone? I’m not going to stay in the position I am in now indefinitely. I want to move up either to make more money and/or to take on more responsibility. The idea that you’d cut out someone right away because you think they’re using you for advancement is…weird.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Yeah, I think Bee Eye’s example–somebody who was clearly just killing time until the occurrence of some factor external to the job–is an example of somebody that one would be justified in not hiring. But somebody who wants to move into a field, especially in an entry level position, I think it’s kind of expected that they will either move up or out.

    2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      I think it is in the way people present it.

      I had someone interview who was in a *very* similar position to the letter writer. They had decided mid-career to make a change to something they loved and knew that they would be starting at a significantly lower salary. My boss had similar fears about this person moving on quickly, but my response was that it was an entry/junior-level position, so did we *ever* really expect people to stay in it more than 2-3 years?

      1. T3k*

        I wish my past boss had that mindset. It was an entry level job and I was the only one laid off out of 5 employees (1 of who was loaded and so only worked to have something to do and his job could easily be done by 3 others there, while he never did any of our duties) and my gut feeling is because they knew I was applying for grad school. Even then, I’d still have been with them for a year, and lasted longer than 4 other employees they had had in the past year alone. Apparently my past boss thought they were a million dollar corporation and a low wage earner with an entry level job should stay with them forever.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          It was an argument my boss and I went back on forth with a lot. He had been with the company 10+ years, but because it was start-up-esque had basically been promoted every 2-3 years and would often complain about people who moved on to other positions at the 2-3 year mark.

          Finally, I point blank asked him if he had never moved from Teapot Polisher to Head Teapot Polisher to VP Teapot polisher, would he still be with the company…it helped.

      2. TootsNYC*

        it was an entry/junior-level position, so did we *ever* really expect people to stay in it more than 2-3 years?


        Heck, even at a job that’s a bit above entry level–if you get three years out of someone, that’s pretty good, in my field.

        I will say, I want someone who’s happy to be working for me. So I don’t want to give them the impression that I manipulated them into helping me low-ball them.

        But I also don’t want to end up with someone who’s so shocked by the difference in their take-home that they aren’t happy.

        I think the way you combat that, then is to openly confront it. Do your homework first. And say, “in terms of takehome, that difference is smaller than you’d think.” And reassure me that your expectations are accurate for the field, for the impact it will have on your finances. Tell me, “I’ve been preparing for a different payscale, and have structured my expenses accordingly/been saving up money to buffer the transition.” Just make me feel that you’re mentally ready for it. Then I’m willing to simply treat you on your skills.

        1. The Strand*

          But they are entry level junior positions for a reason. You start there. In this economy if you stay somewhere more than five or six years, you are, in most fields, leaving money on the table. Being somewhere for 2 to 3 years and then moving on does not indicate a job hopper the way it once did.

  7. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    If I had received your message, I would have thought you told me your current salary and not your expected salary because you wanted to come to an interview, impress me, and then ask me for much more than I was planning to offer. Lots of candidates think that things work this way – if they meet you, they will like you so much that they will pay whatever you want. There are certainly fields and high-level roles where this may be the case, but lots of roles where getting a huge bump from the range is just not going to happen. Scheduling an interview with you only to have this happen is not a good use of my time or yours if I already know I can’t pay more than the original range.

    Obviously, this is not what you were doing, but it is what candidates do when they want to try negotiating for more than you are offering – so that’s what it looked like.

    I think this job is gone, but like Alison said, in the future, try not to share your current salary and acknowledge upfront that their range is workable for you.

    1. fposte*

      Totally agreeing. If your history is higher-paid, my thoughts are “Do you understand what kind of cut you’ll be taking, and are you willing to commit to the job nevertheless?” Absence of a salary expectation unfortunately suggests a no.

    2. tesyaa*

      Lots of candidates think that things work this way – if they meet you, they will like you so much that they will pay whatever you want.


    3. AdAgencyChick*

      Very true. I’ve been on both sides of this — I was once the naive candidate who was trying to move into a new field and figured “of course they’ll pay me what I’m making now.” And now, although HR/recruiting does all the salary screens in my company (and in my industry in general), so that I don’t so much as get to talk to a candidate unless HR thinks we can afford them, I would definitely be skeptical of a candidate who is making a ton more than I can pay, and I won’t pay more for that candidate unless I can justify an upgrade in the position. Paying one candidate more means there’s less in the salary pool for others working for me, and that either means I need to downgrade the next position I’m hiring for, or else stiff my existing employees when raise time comes along.

      I do wish that it were easier for candidates changing careers to be able to say flat out, “I’m changing careers. I realize that means a pay cut, but I don’t yet know by how much. Can we talk about what your range is, and then we can decide whether it makes sense to talk more?” Given the imbalance of information — the employer knows what they want to pay, but candidates have a harder time digging up good salary data — I wish this kind of conversation happened more often.

      But as long as hiring managers have lots of candidates to choose from, they may not want to bother even with this.

    4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      The other problem we have and we are so never going down this road again, is with someone taking a salary cut, after trying to negotiate for more from us, and then bugging the bejuzus out of us for raises at the 6 month mark.

      Never doing that again. Happened way more than once over the years.

      If someone is taking a salary cut and IF they try to use their current salary as a negotiation point, I won’t pull the offer but I also won’t budge on the dollar amount and will also dissuade them from thinking raises will make up the gap any time soon, as in, flat out say that. As well as don’t ask in 6 months!

      (We’re clear about ranges before anybody ever has a first interview, btw)

      1. Windchime*

        We had this happen, too. Only it was a person who insisted that he was fine that the position was Jr Teapot Quality Inspector (despite his previous experience as Senior Teapot Engineer). Two weeks after he was hired, he was applying for management positions in our company. He didn’t want to be a Jr. Teapot Quality Inspector at all; he just wanted a foot in the door. He was with us for six months and was a huge pain in the ass the entire time. Never again will I agree to hire someone overqualified, despite all their protests that they are happy to be taking a step back in their career.

  8. BRR*

    I had something similar happen today in a phone interview. The hiring manager at the end said she wanted to bring me for an interview and then named a salary range to see if it would be prohibitive. It was and she went to see what she could do but because it might help my career in the long run and the fact that I’m on a PIP made me backpedal super fast. Throwing in I know I don’t have the track record to get a huge raise for this position and it depends on the total compensation package and if maybe adjustments to other benefits could be made like more vacation and then going back to not having the skills for a huge raise (it would need to be about 15% just to meet my current salary and the benefits are worse). It didn’t turn her off though and she said I should come in to meet everybody if I was still at least partially interested.

    1. BRR*

      Oh and in a plot twist I actually threw out a rough area for where my current salary is during this frantic, end of call salary discussion.

  9. YandO*

    I never feel like I am in a position to not share salary. HR/recruiter will and do move on from candidates who cause “waves” in the beginning. As a semi-entry level candidate, I have no ground to stand on here. So I refuse provide my salary, next step? Silence.

    Maybe this will be realistic once I am a hard to find candidate, but as one of the many….there is no way of avoiding it.

  10. Retail Lifer*

    I know it’s “none of an employer’s business” what you make now, but it’s not realistic to epect that you won’t be asked to disclose that info. I know it’s not the same in every field, but I’ve applied to at least 100 during the past year and not only did nearly 100% ask for my current salary and salary history, almost every single one had it as a required field in the online application so there was no way to dance around it. I’ve been lowballed because of that many times and I’ve been eliminated from the applicant pool because of that (although I’m not sure how many times the latter has happened because they don’t normally disclose that).

    I’m at the point where I do my research and see what the position should theoretically pay, then make sure I address my current salary and desired salary range in the cover letter. I’d rather get it over with and take myself out of the running right away than have to do the back-and-forth when the salary range isn’t even very negotiable.

    1. Retail Lifer*

      *EXPECT that you won’t be asked…
      *100 JOBS during the past year…

      Did I miss any? Jeez…

  11. Jenn*

    Would it be appropriate to say, “I’m unable to give out this information due to my current employer’s policy of not discussing it”?

    1. James M.*

      I think that would only work for a few specific industries or job titles. I’m not too keen on outright lying to a potential employer anyways, so I’d frame it as my policy not to discuss prior compensation. You are allowed to have policies too, you know.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        Maybe so, but “your policies” don’t carry any weight at all. If you have a written agreement with your employer not to disclose, then you may be taking a risk by sharing it. If you’re just deciding that’s a rule, then that’s just another way of saying no without giving a reason.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I endorse the idea of saying “my salary is covered under my confidentiality agreement with my employer, but I’m seeking $X.” It probably is, and even if it’s not, it’s not unreasonable that you might assume it is.

    3. Apollo Warbucks*

      I’ve always said my salary and terms are covered by a non disclosure agreement so can’t be subject to further discussion.

      Or my mom made be laugh when she co signed a lease for my sisters apartment and the forms from the letting agent asked for her current slaary so my mom wrote “none of your dam n business, but enough to cover the rent if needed”

      1. baseballfan*

        That’s humorous…but if someone is co-signing for a legal payment obligation, it’s absolutely the payee’s business what the income is. (I mean, if she was applying for her own lease, or for a credit card, or any of a number of other things, she’d be expected to disclose income – this is no different).

        If I was the landlord, your sister would be looking elsewhere if she didn’t qualify on her own.

    4. YawningDodo*

      I’m doing the bitter internal laugh right now because one of my previous jobs was a government position and not only was salary disclosure not against my employer’s policy, but there’s a public website where you could look up all of our salaries with our full names attached, no privacy measures whatsoever.

  12. Stephanie*

    I had this problem once. OldJob was in a very high COL area. I interviewed for a new job in a much cheaper area, and the recruiter asked my salary expectations and my old salary. I gave both (former was lower than the latter) and she was like “That’s s significant pay cut. Why would you want to take that?” I tried saying “Well, NewCity is cheaper than OldCity and this position is in a different industry at a different level” to not much avail. Now I just dodge salary questions or say something like “I’m looking for a fair market offer.”

    1. oldfashionedlovesong*

      “Looking for a fair market offer” is a good suggestion, thanks Stephanie.

      My current job is in one of the highest COL areas in the country, and so while my salary is solidly median income here, it’s about 10-15K more than I’d make to do this same job pretty much anywhere else in the country. I’m now looking to move elsewhere, and as I read job posting after job posting, I’m slowly realizing that everyone is going to look askance at me either applying to (a) jobs I’m qualified for that pay much less than I make now, or (b) jobs I’m barely- or under-qualified for that make equivalent salary. I would happily take a pay cut to live somewhere I actually enjoy living, but I have a feeling no one will believe me on that :/

      1. YawningDodo*

        The argument I intend to make should I move to an area with higher COL would work in reverse here. Look up actual housing costs in the new place and come up with a concrete comparison to get the point across. Mine is that the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in one of the cities to which I’m most likely to move is the same as renting a three-bedroom house in my current city. I do fully intend to mention that if the interviewer starts asking about expected differences in salary.

      2. The Strand*

        Give it a shot. Explain that you are specifically interested in the new area. It might help to get a local PO box or the like in the targeted town to show you’re serious… And your expensive COL city experiences might make them prone to think of you as being a more experienced person ready to take a higher paying mgmt job, so you could always try launching for something that pays the same in lower COL City.

  13. Ad Astra*

    These days, I refuse to complete applications that ask for salary history (now that I’m no longer desperate for work). Am I an amazing candidate that anyone would be lucky to have? Maybe not, but I’m an employed, passive candidate, and it’s always going to be hard to attract those people when you’re asking them rude questions in an attempt to lowball them.

    A few years ago, when most of my salary history was in the range of $7/hour, I didn’t mind sharing it because I knew the companies wouldn’t try to pay me that little for an entry-level professional job. In fact, I think the job I took right out of college was the one that didn’t ask for my salary history anyway.

    Now that I have a few different full-time, white-collar jobs under my belt, I’m much more wary about revealing my salar — especially after moving from journalism (extremely low pay) to marketing (decent-but-not-great pay). At the end of the day, it’s not about how much I need, it’s about how much I’m worth.

    If I ran an HR department, I’d be wary of using past salaries to determine offers because that makes it easier to continue the cycle of underpaying women. Is there a liability issue there? Probably not. But if you care about equal wages, you have to figure out what a position is really worth and pay that.

  14. HRChick*

    That’s part of the reason I love working for the company I work for now. We don’t care what your current salary is. We’re going to offer you a competitive salary based on the market. Yes, we will negotiate with you, but we don’t need to know up front what you’re making to be able to determine what we’re willing to pay.

    1. abby*

      I am at a nonprofit, so our salaries are somewhat lower but still competitive. And now that I oversee HR functions, our recruiters do not ask applicants about their current salaries; I have emphasized that we do not care what they currently make. Additionally, our recruiters disclose the range we can offer during the initial phone screen to confirm that it makes sense to continue.

  15. Workfromhome*

    You are going to end up getting screened out a lot no matter what. It isn’t right but its life.

    If they asked me what they asked the OP
    “The HR rep also requested that I give my salary history and a potential range for their position”

    I would do my best research for the new potion and reply :
    “My research indicates that the salary range for X position is is $Xxx to $xxx. If this position falls into that range I’d be happy to discuss further with you. ”

    If they are not willing to even pay the low market for the position you don’t want that job even if you are willing to take a pay cut.

    If asked for a salary history I’d simply reply that that information is protected by confidentiality agreements. They have no way of knowing what those agreements might be and any employer who asked me to break a confidentiality agreement you don’t want to work for anyways.

    I realize that it sucks and that some people are going to screen you out just because you won’t conform to their requests no matter how unreasonable or even illegal they may be. I’ve actually had that discussion being interviewed by a company that is actually a client of my current company. They asked about my current salary and I told them that that like other business items between a client and supplier are confidential . When they balked at it I asked if they would be OK if I took the job and a client asked me to disclose salary or pricing information that was confidential. Needless to say I didn’t get the job but I also learned that I wouldn’t want to work for people who would ask you you break an agreement.

  16. YandO*

    So I just received a job offer and they did low-ball me based on my previous salary and while I accepted it (because reasons), I must say I am pretty annoyed with them. I know they are they type of company that rewards commitment and the longer I stay there, the better compensation I will receive….but I am freaking relocating to one of the most expensive cities in the country. After adjustment for cost of living, I am taking a paycut.

      1. YandO*

        I tried. It was a no go :( They don’t negotiate, which I knew going in because of glassdoor reviews.

        I am very excited about the company, it’s a new field, the exact position I want with lots of opportunity to growth/promotion, amazing benefits….It’s worth it to me, but the truth is, 3-5k would make a HUGE difference to me and very little difference to them. In particular because I paid for my own travel costs.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t necessarily think they’re being unfair (I don’t know the company, after all), but I think being annoyed with them isn’t a great note to start on, so that would make me likely to pass.

    1. TootsNYC*

      while I accepted it (because reasons), I must say I am pretty annoyed with them

      See, this is what I’d want to avoid. I wouldn’t want someone starting to work for me, already sour because they believed I’d low-balled them.

      If it’s a difference because of their skills, or because of our industry’s norms–fine. Because I can make that clear, and hopefully they won’t be annoyed before they even get there.

      That’s why lots of times I’ve said to my top candidate, “I’m going to give you my top offer. Don’t try to negotiate, because I can’t go any higher; my bottom of the range was $x, and I’m offering you the top because I really want you, and I want you to be happy here. I want you to know that I’m excited about having you on the team and I value you, and you don’t even have to ask for the top range. Your skills warrant it, and I’m giving it to you.”
      That’s worked for me, so far, the times I’ve done it.

    2. The Strand*

      I was lowballed when I started new direction in a new field. I committed to the idea I’d be learning and positioning myself to move on in two or three years. The thing is, knowing I was worth more didn’t embitter me as much as it made me focus on this job as a stepping stone to one where I would be appreciated and treated better. And it was. I now make 50% more at my next job and am well in line with local and national standards for my field. Place a small, smooth stone on your desk to remind you this is just one step in a long career.

  17. T*

    I used to work at an organization where nearly everyone was overpaid. However, one of the few exceptions was me. I would say I was actually slightly underpaid because it was in education and I lacked the proper credentials (for the org, not necessarily for my position). I can’t remember how many times I heard the term “golden handcuffs” from my co-workers (most of them higher on the food chain than me). It never hit home until we restructured and two people were laid off. They both were out of work a long time and then took a massive paycut. I guess being overpaid is a good problem to have as long as you acknowledge to yourself that you’re overpaid. My former co-workers held out for the same salary and never got it.

    For myself, being underpaid was actually a blessing because it made it easy to leave when I got sick of working there. I took a slight step backwards to switch to private industry and still got a small raise. I now make far more than I ever would have at that job (though I miss the cheap benefits and pension) and do much more challenging work.

  18. baseballfan*

    The rub is that candidates want this to work in reverse. If someone wants their salary to be none of the employer’s business – then they give up the right to use that in negotiations if they are being offered less. This cuts both ways.

    1. Workfromhome*

      Its not really a “rub”.

      Your past salary should have no bearing to the prospective employer either way.
      if you want to negotiate a better salary at a new job you do it on the merits of what you bring to the new company and how much they want you.

      If you say “I need at least X$ to change jobs” that’s fine.
      The fact that X$ is based on your old salary of Y$ +10% is irrelevant to the new employer.
      Your old salary shouldn’t matter to anyone including the candidate. only what new salary you are willing to accept and what salary the new employer is willing to offer.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        It makes perfect sense for an employed candidate to say, I need $X to change jobs. As long as the interview was taken honestly, meaning the $x isn’t wildly out of the range for the job, it make sense. I think quoting your current salary as part of the negotiation, nothing wrong with that. If I want to win you from another employer and your main reason for wanting to jump is to progress income, nothing wrong with that.

        If the candidate is unemployed, what she made in her previous job isn’t much of a negotiating point, other than as a point of data for market, and only one point of data.

        The recession complicated the latter for people. Someone who had worked their way up and been sadly laid off in 2009 at $75k, that $75K salary wasn’t a positive negotiation point for people but you can understand how that was hard for them to see. If we offered 45K and they said “I used to make 75K can you do 55K” this wasn’t in their favor.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I have never used it in negotiations.

      Oh, sure, it informs my decision-making. I may decide that the salary is not enough for me to switch jobs. Or to pass up the jobs that I haven’t even interviewed for yet.

      But that’s not ever why I tell someone I want more money. I say, “this job is going to be really hard, and I want $5k more to do it.” Or, “I’ve got decades in this industry, I’m your best candidate, and it’s worth an extra $5k to have me coming in really powered up by your vote of confidence in me.”

      Because that’s the only thing that -should- inform the salary decision: What is the person worth, in the market?

  19. silvertech*

    This letter made me think about a practice that’s becoming popular in my (European) country and it’s even more annoying than simply asking for a candidate’s salary history: a lot of potential employers require candidates to provide a copy of their latest pay slip during the interview process. The reason for this is obvious! I always refused so far, because:

    1) the pay slip has a lot of confidential information in it
    2) that, and my current salary, is none of the potential employer’s business
    3) I want to discuss salary openly
    4) I don’t want my potential salary to be based on what I currently earn, or less, or worse end up in a situation like the OP’s
    5) I feel like the potential employer is basically saying that they don’t trust the information I would provide, and that is deeply irritating
    6) it automatically gives the employer the upper hand in negotiations, if negotiations are ever going to happen

    I consider it a red flag and an indication that I have to tread very carefully.

    1. Chocolate Teapot*

      Yes, I have heard of providing a current payslip as well. It has been suggested that this is to show you are not lying about what you currently earn.

    2. Retail Lifer*

      I’ve been asked for that here in the U.S. a few times so they could verify what I said I was making without contacting my current employer. I wasn’t asked until late in the process, when I was a finalist and they were doing reference and background checks. I know everyone is a firm believer that your current pay is none of their business, but it’s a reality that you’re often going to be asked to disclose it. If you dont’ follow their protocol then you risk being taken out of the running, so if your field is as tight as mine than it’s not worth the risk. I’d much rather show them a pay stub (with anything confidential blacked out with a Sharpie) than have them contact my current employer.

  20. trilby*

    Telling them what range you’re seeking would hardly be useful, in my opinion. What normal person who makes $50K would say she is seeking a range of $39-49K, even if she would in fact accept the job at $39k? How useful is it to say “I’d really like to make $60K, but I’ll accept as low as $39K?” That’s just silly. This is just one of those infuriating situations where you have to put on a kabuki play and hope it works out at the end. It’s ridiculous.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, it’s about knowing the market rate for the job and stating that that’s what you’re seeking, in a situation where you’re going to be taking a pay cut because you’re changing fields, market conditions have changed, you were overpaid, or whatever the case is.

    2. Bio-Pharma*

      Another aspect: Has anyone eve been offered the top of the range they were looking for?? I’ve only had a couple of professional-level jobs, but so far I’ve always been offered the low end of my range, then KICK myself wondering if I could/should have shifted my range to the right. A solution could be to just say I was seeking a salary around [insert median or high salary], and if they offer something slightly lower, I’d have more confidence that it was the max they could offer.

  21. Salary*

    Many of the applications I’ve been filling out have salary stated as a requirement- both the form-style, and the resume/cover letter style ones. The descriptions sometimes state that they won’t even be read if you don’t submit to providing this information. The form ones make it a required field.

    Personally, my salary history is kind of ludicrous and not very relevant to anything I’m currently applying for. In higher ed, I was paid by the credit hour. You can’t enter 3 digits on the forms, and it will not accept text. I was also PT in all of my past jobs, and I’m currently looking at FT. I was also under-employed. So really, there are a thousand reasons why it this info should not be provided, as it really only hurts me. But since it is mandatory, I begrudgingly provide it.

  22. Rachel*

    This wasn’t the reader’s question, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dump your high paying job to start a career as an editor. I’ve worked as an editor for the past seven years in a variety of roles. The career outlook for editors is not that great, and it’s not always a fulfilling/satisfying role to fill either, contrary to what many people think. Working as an editorial assistant will involve a lot of administrative work too.

    1. The Strand*

      To be fair, sometimes a person has to make this decision to go into a changing field while they are young, because they’re young and still deciding what they enjoy in a field, what they need personally. Only then can they really dig into that advice.

      I know maybe three or four people who went into full time writing and editing work after graduating at the millennium or its edge. One was a photojournalist who took an editorial job at a nonprofit, that paid well, right out of college. She was making $36k, her friends were making $19 and 20k and starving in newsrooms. But she was so bored. It would’ve been more appreciated by an midlife employee.

      Another took a small town newspaper job and rose to second in command. He took a hyperregional job in another state. He lost his job when the paper went under this year. He’ll find something, the transition may be rough, but he has a solid background and any corporate job will be a huge step up in pay.

      Depending on where she wants to take it, especially if its DC rather than say, NYC, it might be the right call anyway.

  23. NickelandDime*

    There wouldn’t be 100 posts on this person’s letter if employers would just state what the darn job pays up in the job description and then take the applicants from there. But no, they want to play these stupid games.

  24. Dealtwiththis*

    I definitely dealt with this same situation! I handled it by saying “I’m afraid that if I give you my salary range it will place me out of this position. Would you mind giving me the salary range that you were thinking instead?” They gave me the range and I immediately responded that it was a perfectly acceptable range for me. I made sure to tell them all about why I wanted to work for them and how passionate I was about their cause. It worked! I got the job and within a year they had promoted me enough that I’m making the same salary that I was before I came here. :)

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