About three weeks ago a colleague had a noteworthy experience. As he tells the story, “I’m sitting at my desk like any other workday and my phone rings. I answer and it’s some headhunter telling me about a job that sounds kind of interesting. So, I listen to what he has to say, he asks me a few questions, and then all of the sudden he asks me how much money I make a year. Todd, what should I do in those situations?”
This “salary question” has got to be the single most written-about topic among all career blogs, career forums and career publications. There are books, book series, training videos, and courses that are all dedicated to this one topic. I’ll keep it simple.
How do you respond when a potential employer (or headhunter) asks you about your current income?
There are a handful of ways that you can respond and each one comes with its own set of possibilities and consequences. I want to dig into all of it.
Let’s start with the basics: Why ask an interviewee about their current income? The easy answer is that employers budget for labor and we benchmark our ranges based on our ability to pay, our willingness to pay, and our perceived benefit of hiring someone good. But, we also don’t want to leave money on the table.
Simply put, we want to make sure we’re not wasting time by even looking and we have a pretty good idea what it’s going to cost to hire someone with your skills and experience. You, as the candidate, want to make sure that you’re not wasting your time by even listening and if you’re diligent, you’ve done your homework and you have a pretty good idea of your worth. So, you aren’t required to answer the question, but we aren’t required to continue speaking with you. It’s fair play. Rest assured, we are going to ask and if we are large enough to have our own recruiting software, we will ask you at the front end when you fill out the online job application. We won’t let you skip that step, either.
So, when you are confronted with the salary question, what are you options?
From the perspective of the jobseeker, delay is probably the safest option and is likely to yield the more beneficial outcome. It is very reasonable to want to know more before you tip your hand.
The likely response you’ll get during an interview, “Well, you should tell me what you’re making so we know we’re not wasting each other’s time.” Maybe. But, it’s only a 30-60 minute interview and the time lost is minimal. And, incidentally, the employer wants to anchor you because what you’re presently making is also an indicator of what you’re willing to accept. The worst that can happen is the interviewer ends the interview and after a moment of awkwardness, you part ways.
With refusal, there’s a right way and a wrong way. Now, if you’re unemployed, have no income, and are really worried about where your next meal is coming from, this is probably your worst option. If you’re gainfully employed or wealthy, you can refuse all day long. You have alternatives and you don’t need the job. Some people try to create the impression that they don’t need the job and then refuse to answer. But, in my years of recruiting, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting someone who’s using this ploy and I just simply wait that out. If no indication of income is supplied, I generally suspend the interview process.
In redirection, you also carve yourself a little wiggle room. And, it’s really not that confrontational. You’re essentially signaling to the interviewer, I’m not opposed to telling you what I make, but you’re going to have to tell me what you’re willing to pay first. This route has the potential to become a tangle but if you’re polite about it, a lot of interviewers will tip their hand. For the unemployed jobseeker, this response is slightly risky but the consequences aren’t likely to be as harsh as you might get with refusal.
Submission is the easy route. Both parties quietly hope that the other party just submits and reveals the financial facts. This angle is a punt on the part of one member of the discussion. But, everyone breathes a little easier from this moment forward. If you’re unemployed, as noted above, this is a safe play.
Now, this topic wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention perception and signaling. I’ll keep it light as this area has volumes already in circulation that I don’t need to revisit. If you are someone who’s got the confidence of an NFL quarterback then you’ve probably already made your millions and you don’t need to be in the interview. However, if your confidence is sound, you could signal that your needs aren’t sufficient to be willing to tip your hand, even if you’re flat broke and living with your parents. George Costanza was able to do this once and it landed him a job with the Yankees. But, if you’re a “Seinfeld” fan like me, you also know that George wasn’t an expert at getting what he wanted with any degree of frequency. In all of the negotiation books that I’ve read, the most important element is either having a viable alternative or being able to create the perception that you’ve got a viable alternative. If you can create the perception when you do not have any other option, congratulations, you’re on your way to fabulous riches and you should be working on Wall Street. When you actually do have a viable alternative, it’s perfectly OK to make the other party aware of it. I urge you to be cautious, as it’s easy to over-play your hand and come off as rude.
When a headhunter calls, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to ask, “good question, what did your client tell you they’re willing to pay?” The headhunter only makes money if he closes the deal; he gets paid on the transaction. So, he’s only going to try and bargain with you inasmuch as necessary to get you to agree to an interview.
So, those are some options and my take on the question regarding salary.
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