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The Job Interview Question You Never Want to Answer 

 July 1, 2020

By  Marie

You will all be asked the job interview question you should never answer.

It happened to me and to my friends. It will likely happen to you.

You’re at a job interview (or more likely on a phone interview). The discussion with the HR representative is going great. The job sounds like something you would really love. The company is doing exciting things.

It’s an opportunity that would really jump-start your career. Or maybe it will be a huge promotion. Or help you pivot in the direction you want to go.

And then the HR representative asks, nonchalantly, the dreaded question.

“How much do you currently make?”

Panic sets in. You did your research on Glassdoor (hopefully). You know this position should pay significantly more than you are making right now. Maybe a recruiter even told you the salary range for this job and it is significantly more than you are making right now.

Out of excitement for the opportunity and not wanting to seem confrontational, many people share their current salary.

But you will be prepared for this question and know how to appropriately handle it.

A Real Life Case Study

A friend of mine, let’s call him Jack, applied to a job for which he was a great fit.

Jack was with his current company for several years now. His current job was his first job out of a PhD program. It was with a very reputable company in his field.

But his salary was significantly below market value for his level of education.

Jack spoke to a third party recruiter about his job application for another similarly large and reputable company. The salary range that the recruiter shared with Jack was about 50% higher than Jack’s current salary.

Jack was very excited about the pay bump as well as the increased responsibilities for the role.

When Jack spoke to the HR representative, she pressed him for his current salary.

She insisted that his current salary was a requirement for the job application (which he later found out was not accurate). Because Jack was very excited, Jack shared his current salary.

Jack followed “best practice” (that other individuals may advise) and made a case for why he is worth the salary that is 50% higher. He acknowledged his current salary is under market value.

The HR representative was polite and Jack progressed to the next step.

After this conversation, Jack went to two in-person interviews (an hour drive each way) that took two full days. The team and hiring manager loved him.

He got an offer.

The offer was 20% above his current salary.

This was significantly below the range that was provided before the employer knew his current salary. Despite multiple discussions after the offer, Jack couldn’t get aligned with the company on a salary.

It was “against policy” to provide such a large pay bump.

The company valued him based on the valuation of his current employer rather than valuing his skills based on their assessment at the interview.

If Jack didn’t share his salary at that first conversation, the process may have have ended at that phone interview. It would have been disappointing, just like the end result was despite sharing his current salary.

But not sharing his current salary would also have saved 2 full days of Jack’s time and the employer’s time. Time is not free. Value your time.

Jack’s experience is not uncommon. And it is why many states are making this question illegal. So how do you navigate this question?

Know the Industry Appropriate Salary Range Before the Job Interview

I love Glassdoor and I use it all the time.

It is self-reported income, but from my experience it is usually fairly accurate (especially for large companies). There are other sites that provide similar information, but Glassdoor has always worked best for me.

As you apply to jobs you should do a thorough Glassdoor search to establish an appropriate salary range expectation.

Remember to look for salaries in your geographic area or a geographic area with a similar cost of living. Don’t look at salaries in New York City if you are looking for a job in Arizona, even if it is the same company.

You can also confirm your salary expectations on your first call with a third party recruiter. Typically, the recruiter will tell you the salary range unprompted.

The recruiter wants to understand whether the salary range something that would work for you.

If the recruiter does not bring it up, it is entirely appropriate to ask “Could you please share what the expected salary range is for this position?” towards the end of the conversation. 

Make sure that you’ve had a productive conversation about the job before you ask this question.

It needs to be clear to the recruiter that you are first and foremost interested in the job itself and not just the salary. Recruiters make commissions off of hires.

They want to make sure they put up candidates to the employer that are likely to be given an offer AND that accept the job. 

Know the Pay History Ban Status in Your State before the Job Interview

It’s important for you to understand the law in the state you live in. Many states have outlawed pay history questions. This article provides information on what the status of these pay history bans are in each state.

Understand whether whether this question is even legal in your state.

You should be able to maneuver this question at the job interview without having to bring up the legalities. But it is important for you to understand your rights as a job applicant.

If an employer is asking this question in a state where it is not legal, consider it a red flag.

It is the employer’s responsibility to know applicable laws and regulations to their business. If it is something they are not aware of (or worse, ignoring) then you should reconsider your interest in that employer.

Know How to (NOT) Answer the Current Salary Question at the Job Interview

So by the time you receive the question “How much do you currently make?” during the job interview you already know:

  • What your salary expectation is for the job that is being discussed
  • Whether the question is legal in your state

Your goal should be to pivot the discussion away from what you currently make and towards your salary expectation.

My recommendation is to always respond with the following (or similar):

“I would be happy to share my salary expectations for the job given the responsibilities we discussed today. It’s certainly important that our salary expectations for this position are similar.”

Let’s dissect this response:

“I would be happy to share my salary expectations for the job” demonstrates that you are not willing to share your current salary but that you are collaborating to reach a mutually beneficial conclusion.

“Given the responsibilities we discussed today” is important in that it leaves the door open for future (slight) adjustments to this range.

If this discussion is occurring during a first phone interview with HR you may not get a complete, detailed perspective of the job responsibilities. You may learn more about the job at the next interview with the hiring manager and direct team members.

This may warrants a slight adjustment to your salary expectation. 

“It’s certainly important that our salary expectations for this position are similar” provides recognition from you to the potential employer that you understand the information they need.

This is demonstrates that you are thinking beyond your own needs. You are showing that you don’t want to waste their time if salary expectations are not aligned.

Most employers will acquiesce and accept to hear your salary expectations instead.

If an employer continues to press for your current salary, I recommend your next answer is more firm and direct.

“I do not consider my current salary relevant for the job we are discussing today. I would be happy to discuss my salary expectations instead.”

What if an employer will not back away from the question despite any of these responses?

Consider this a red flag. Any employer that claims to need your current salary is valuing you based on the value someone else placed on your skills, rather than taking the time to assess the value of your skills for themselves. 

At that point, it is really your personal decision whether you share your salary.

Personally, I would not share my current salary even if it meant walking away from the job.

Think of Jack.

Now that you are prepared on how to never answer this job interview question, check out some other job interview preparation tips.

Interview went well? Make sure you know how to write an interview thank you email.

The Job Interview Question You Never Want to Answer

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