Q: I've been with my company for about 10 years; it's my second job out of college. I've been interviewing for other positions and am often asked about my current salary. I have done my homework and know that I am underpaid by about $15,000 for the position I am in. In fact, people hired in a level below me often get hired at the same salary I make. I know that companies I interview with will make offers based on the salary I make now, but even at a 15% higher salary, I'd not be making up the difference. How can I be honest about my current salary but also command the salary I deserve at a new company?
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A: You've definitely got the right idea to be honest about your current salary. Potential employers can always find out what you earn and it would be the end of an opportunity if a company found out at a later date that you lied about your salary. "It reflects your ethics," says Sheryl Spanier, an executive career management consultant in New York.
To get what you think you deserve, you'll definitely want to know why you have been underpaid. Is it because you have had marginal performance, is the company or industry struggling or is the company bad at managing salaries? Perhaps you stayed on because of challenging assignments even though raises were paltry and you see now that the best way to make more money is to jump to another firm. Once you get a handle on why you've be underpaid, you'll be better able to explain it honestly in an interview.
Recruiters and human resources personnel ask this question because they want to know where you fit into their compensation structure -- not necessarily to figure out how little they can pay you. But, there are ways to get around giving a specific number at the beginning of the interview or even shifting the focus of the question when asked about your current salary. The first thing to keep in mind is that companies are most interested in your experience. They want to know that the person they're offering a position to can handle the everyday challenges on the job. "Be very clear about how your experience and talent fits directly with the new position," says Andrea Eisenberg, a senior human resources consultant in New York.
Then, when the conversation gets around to a hiring manager's question about what you're making, Paul Gavejin, managing director of Total Compensation Solutions, a compensation consulting firm in Armonk, N.Y. suggests asking a few questions in return. You might say: " I'd be happy to tell you, but first, I'd really like to know what you think this job is worth?" or "What is the salary range for this job?" You could also reply with by shifting the subject and saying, "I'm looking at jobs in this salary range." It might also help to adjust your thinking when you respond. Think in terms of total compensation, and not just salary alone. To that end, you might respond, "My salary is X, my annual bonus is Y and the employer contribution to my 401(k) is Z. All totaled, my current compensation package is worth $(X+Y+Z)."
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Another tactic might be to tell the interviewer that you appreciate that they have asked you about your compensation but that you won't be making your decision about the job based solely on that criteria alone, says Ms. Spanier. "Tell them you're looking for an opportunity for growth, career development, and the ability to make a contribution," she says. You could also say that the job you did for ten years is a very different position than the for which you are applying, even though the skills are similar.
Clearly, you only want to deflect the question up to a point, otherwise you'll start to annoy the hiring manager. The idea is to try to get as much information as you need about the position and salary range before you disclose your previous salary. "The goal is not to get screened out before you can fully explore your candidacy," says Ms. Spanier.
If the interviewer insists on knowing what you're currently earning at the start of the interview, it's best to have a few already-thought out answers in your mind that can explain your low pay. "You'll want to do a little explaining about how you've been at the organization a long time and while you're not looking to leave based solely on salary, you would expect to be paid fair market value when you make a move," says Ray Skiba, director of human resources for Streck Inc. a medical-device company in Omaha, Neb.
Perhaps your company traditionally gives out very low annual increases or froze raises altogether for the last few years -- mention that or say that while the company provided many on the job challenges, it didn't offer much in the way of compensation. "It is pretty common that people who have been with companies a while don't often keep up with the typical salary ranges" adds Mr. Skiba. You might want to share a recent performance appraisal to make clear that your salary issues aren't a matter of performance.
Mr. Skiba says whatever you do, don't be too pushy. "Show your value on the job and you'll be taken care of," he says. If you get the feeling that's not the case before you take a new job, "you won't want to work there anyway," Mr. Skiba adds.
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