Sometimes you should keep your salary secret and sometimes you should proclaim it from the rooftops.
"I would never, ever disclose my current salary or salary history to a prospective employer even if it means ending the interview process. That is my advice to job hunters," says Nick Corcodilos, headhunter extraordinaire, at PBS News Hour. While I've never met Nick, he and I have exchanged numerous emails and he's advised me on my own job hunts, and I respect the heck out of him. In fact, you should sign up for his newsletter.
That said, I politely disagree with his hard-line position. There are some things you should never do when job hunting: answer your cell phone during an interview, get drunk when they take you to lunch or wear your Daisy Duke shorts to any interview that doesn't directly involve pole dancing. Disclosing your salary doesn't make that list.
Nick is right--it should be irrelevant. Companies should make offers based on what you can do for them, not what you did for your previous company. But, most of us don't sit down and calculate what an individual is really worth. We look at what another company thought the candidate was worth and then decide if that salary indicates that you're qualified to go further in the interview process. If your current salary is too low, you're disqualified because you obviously don't have the skills. (Regardless of whether you actually do or not.) And if your current salary is too high, you're disqualified without consideration of whether or not you're interested in that job for reasons other than dollar signs.
In a perfect world, I'd like to see companies be open with what they expect to pay the job and let the candidates self screen. But, the world isn't ideal. Right now, companies have the upper hand and make ridiculous demands--asking for copies of W2s, making people fill out ridiculously long online applications with questions like your high school class ranking. (And submitting applications through an online system is about guaranteed not to get you a job.)
So, in an ideal world, there'd be no angst around salaries, and no one but your accountant and your spouse would ever need to know your salary history. But, some companies are dumb as rocks when it comes to recruiting. (Of course, do you want to work for a dumb company?)
Then again, salary disclosure is sometimes a good thing. When? When you have a job that you like and it's a good salary and someone approaches you, it's perfectly reasonable to say, "Well, I'm currently doing X at Company Y and I make $Z. I'd need an increase to $Z+15% to even think about it." Now, Nick would argue that you should just say, "I'm looking for $Z+15%" to begin with.
But, here's one piece of psychology that he's missing out on: Many, many managers are only going to see you as having value if someone else sees you has having value. It's like toddlers fighting over identical toys. The one someone else has is infinitely better than the one on the shelf. And that's true with job candidates. If your current salary is good, asking for an even better one without the explanation makes you look greedy and somewhat naive about the process. If, however, you can demonstrate that other people think you're awesome and are rewarding you as such? Your chances of a plumb salary just went up.
And, if they choke and suddenly lose interest in you, you know that this isn't a job that was worth your time to seek out. But, this only works if you are already happy in your current role. Why? Because you have the power. If you aren't happy, then they don't need to know your salary because it shouldn't affect their evaluation of you as a candidate. But, the reality is, while Nick would walk away rather than disclose, not all job seekers have the option to do so.
And, therefore, you need to evaluate, do I give up this piece of personal information or do I hold my ground? If you can get to the hiring manager, you're probably golden, but if you're stuck at an HR wall, you'll probably have to confess your salary before you can get through. And business owners: If your HR department is putting up walls, consider replacing them with someone who knows how to value candidates' potential rather than their past.
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