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.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.