Salary conversations are one of the most difficult steps in any career transition. You don’t want to leave money on the table or be under-paid relative to your peers, but too often it’s a lop-sided conversation – the HR manager has much more information than you do – and the imbalance is getting worse. Armed with information about the recruiter’s point of view and their resources can help.

At some point during your job search a recruiter will ask you an uncomfortable salary question – when they surface late in the process you may be ready to answer, but when a salary question arrives early, and unexpectedly, it creates stress and uncertainty.

Salary bombs come in many shapes and sizes, but often sound like this,

  • “How much do you make?”
  • “How much did you make in your last job?”
  • “What are your salary requirements?”
  • “How much do you expect to earn?”

Recruiters will ask because they want to increase their success rates. There are two issues – the first is your salary and benefit expectations for the current role; the second, and less important, is your salary history. Most people assume previous salaries will be used to negotiate a lower offer. That may be the case with unprofessional or inexperienced recruiters, but you should assume you’re negotiating with a professional, and tap into their competitive drive to find a great candidate in their price range. There’s no point to pursue a candidate who would never accept a low offer, so the question about salary requirements is an easy way to vet the candidate pool, improve the recruiter’s success rate, and reduce workload. When it comes to questions about your salary history the problem is your previous role and responsibilities may have little correlation to the job you’re interviewing for now, and your current salary is irrelevant.

Your response matters; mishandle this and you’re no longer a candidate. Handle it well, and you could be on your way to an offer for your next great opportunity.

Rehearsing your response will give you an edge. Try turning it around on the person who asked:

  • “Rather than answer your question I have one of my own. How much have you budgeted for the position?”
  • “In my previous role, I managed a ten-member team, and this position has eight direct reports and thirty people – it’s very different than my current job.”
  • “How much do you think it’s worth?”

In another approach you could point out that given your skill-set, the job description may expand substantially by the time you’re finished with the interview process. If the recruiter can confirm that the company’s salary and benefits are competitive in their industry for that location, then you’re confident you can work something out once the details are known. This shelves the conversation and lets you pass through their “screen” to move forward in the process.

Sometimes nothing works, they hold their ground and don’t allow you to deflect. When a recruiter insists you provide an answer about your current or previous salaries, as long as you asked them to clarify how the information will be used, you can be confident that you’ve done everything you could to help yourself. It’s time to provide factual details. Don’t offer a compensation number, then add medical, 401K, bonus, and other perks, to give them an inflated value…like $200K when your base compensation is $130K. Recruiters have access to a powerful tool – the Equifax Verification Service, theworknumber.com, a subscription service that many companies use to verify employment history and salary information. You can’t lie about your salary and get away with it. You should tap into a source of power for job seekers – Glassdoor.com. Although salary ranges published on Glassdoor are self-reported, it could be very helpful to ask your recruiter to explain the numbers and ranges for similar positions found there about the company you are interviewing with now.

Whatever you do, once you’ve given them an answer don’t negotiate against yourself – only negotiate once a formal offer has been delivered.

Human Resource professionals want to be successful partners to the companies and organizations they support – stay focused on your value and let them be your champion to explain why you’re worth more than everyone else.

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