Adventures in Recruiting: When Bosses Want Your Salary History



Seasonal changes are a norm in many small businesses. Ours being no exception, I field the occasional inquiry from people asking whether we have new openings coming up soon. One such letter arrived in my inbox last week. The candidate, from all indications, appeared to be a young woman whose presented qualifications and experience looked very similar to those required for a position I fill pretty regularly. Overall, she looked like a possibly great hire and someone I would be excited to call for an interview. I just didn’t have a slot open. Regardless, she wouldn’t be free for another month or two. Accordingly, I gave her a quick update on our projected winter calendar, and her materials went right into my “definitely maybe” mental file.

She did make one tactical mistake, however. She gave me her salary history. This worrisome slip nearly prompted me to tell her straight up to take it off her resume immediately, before sending copies out to any more recruiters. An individual candidate’s previous salary information is none of my business. My hiring manager and I don’t need to know what someone is or used to be making in order to put a solid offer together.

It’s quite normal for a company to ask about your salary expectations as part of the interview process. It’s not at all appropriate, however, for total strangers to insist that you share highly personal data—yes, socioeconomic status is personal stuff—when you haven’t even met yet. Certainly, I’ve filled out my share of job applications where some office troll equivalent of my current self has posted a demand for such intimate details of my past life with other employers. But unless you’re dealing with pure government bureaucracy (taxpayer-driven craziness unfortunately gets a pass here, sorry!) you shouldn’t be asked to submit that data before you even get an interview. Private-sector employers could ask you to deliver homemade cookies and sing a jingle before your interview, too, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. And for goodness’ sake, don’t volunteer those details unsolicited. Your salary information does not belong on your resume.

Here’s why: Whatever somebody else paid you in the past has no bearing on what the job you are now applying for could—or should—pay. You might expect more than the new employer is prepared to offer. You might expect less. You may or may not be able to end up on the same page. Ultimately, your ability to come to an agreement on compensation has to do with all sorts of fun things, such as market rates and living costs and industry conditions and your ambitions and the nature of the work and benefits and perks and how reasonable everybody is. How a prospective employer treats you should never be determined based on what a past employer, for better or worse, thought your efforts were worth.

Figuring out the value of human labor to an individual organization is a management responsibility. So is coming up with the funding to pay for that labor and all its attendant costs. It’s completely unfair—and irresponsible—to put that weight on a candidate. Companies shouldn’t be taking potshots in the dark on salaries and hoping something sticks. When an employer creates a position, the employer also has the duty to set a viable budget for that position. Individual candidates, perhaps even the majority of candidates, may not agree with a specific employer’s budgeted salary. We all like to make money. But figuring out how you’re going to get paid is supposed to be your boss’s headache, not yours. (It’s worth noting, though, if you’re one of those people who hires people, that when top talent keeps walking out the door after you name numbers, the problem might be you.)

Prematurely demanding or volunteering salary history also opens the door to the possibility of socioeconomic discrimination. Sadly, people can and do have strong biases when it comes to money and social standing. Why give strangers the chance to form unflattering assumptions—that as a candidate, you might be “too old,” “overqualified,” “demanding,” ”naïve,” “unambitious,” “cheap”—if you don’t have to? Why give prospective employers an excuse to lowball you or toss your application because they think you’ll want more than they are willing to pay?

One way companies can avoid this potential quagmire is by setting rate floors for entry-level and incoming candidates. If company policy dictates that all candidates for Job X with Experience Y are offered the same starting salary, nobody is going to get lowballed or rejected based on salary histories (although some candidates may opt to self-select out). For example, if a business chooses to set opening salaries by the work being performed, the young lady from the opening example would lose nothing by coming in for an interview. This is because if she received an offer, her initial compensation would be based solely on the company’s valuation of the actual job, not her personal negotiating skills.

Salary history is not, I find, especially useful in conveying what I really do need to know, which is what the candidate <

i>wants. What are the dealbreakers? It’s pointless for businesses to spend a lot of time debating salaries only to find that their candidates are not pleased with something else—benefits, leave time, travel requirements. Nobody wants to recruit an applicant who isn’t going to be happy in the new position.

If you’re applying for private sector work and it’s possible to avoid giving out salary history as part of the application process, skip it. When you get called for interviews, come prepared. Know what you want from the employer, and be ready to make your case for it when the subject arises.


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