TL;DR: “I’m still trying to establish whether this role is a good fit for me. Why? What is this role worth to your company?”

The Setup

Reddit has been awash with posts of people getting asked for their salary history while job hunting. These posts are popping up on all sorts of subreddits. I’ve seen folks write about it in /r/personalfinance, /r/engineering, and even a bit in /r/ECE. There has been a reasonable amount of ink spilled on salary negotiation online, and nearly all of the advice agrees: absolutely do not disclose your salary history to a prospective employer. The anchoring effect of disclosing what you’re paid now naturally ties a follow-on offer to that salary.

Sorry, I slipped into manager-speak there. Let me rephrase that, in plain English. Disclosing your salary can turn a potential double digit raise when changing jobs to a few percent raise. You could leave thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

At the time of this writing, it’s still completely legal for a prospective employer to ask for salary history in over half of the states in the USA. I’m fortunate enough to live in Massachusetts, where asking for salary history has been illegal since 2018. In theory, this question isn’t a problem for me any more. In reality, it’s just changed shapes. Like a nasty cold, the question has just mutated into a new form. Instead of asking: “What is your current salary?”, prospective employers instead ask “What’s your expectation around salary?”

This is completely legal, but if you’re not cagey about it, you could cheerfully volunteer too much information about yourself. No law is broken if you say: “Well, I currently make X dollars per year, so I’d expect that plus arbitrary percentage raise.” Make no mistake: once you’ve given a number, it’s all over. A recruiter only hears the salary you volunteered to them. The clearest symptom of this is receiving job offers of your current salary, plus $5k or 5%.

(Note: When I say “recruiter” here, I’m referring to a recruiter or other HR professional working in-house at a company. This advice doesn’t really apply to recruiting and placement agencies. Since agency fees are based on a percentage of your salary upon getting hired, the incentives are aligned for them to ask for more money on your behalf. When you make more, they make more. Indeed, agency recruiters can be valuable information brokers. I’ve had agency recruiters tell me, completely voluntarily, that they’ve been trying to fill the position you’re discussing for six months. That’s extraordinary leverage for a qualified candidate.)

This potentially leaves you with a boatload of money on the table. Suppose, for a moment, that your skillset is one that this company desperately needs. As a result, your skillset is likely delivering way more value to that prospective employer at the margin. This means it’s a good idea for them to pay you more money to do your thing for them. By telling them what you get paid now, you peg the start of negotiations to that number, and give them a huge discount on your very valuable services.

The Answer

Enough rambling about negotiating, and on to some practical advice! I’ve found a great turnabout phrase for being asked your salary history, or your salary expectations. Here’s what I’ve got:

“I’m still trying to establish whether this role is a good fit for me. Why? What is this role worth to your company?”

This is an excellent response, for three reasons.

  1. It offers no information at all about your current compensation.
  2. It puts the person who asked you at an informational disadvantage. It shows that your counterparty is getting closer to a “yes”. Prioritizing good mutual fit in your response telegraphs to them that you are not convinced yet. This is a better negotiating position for you: making them work to convince you gives you leverage.
  3. It frequently yields a response in the form of the salary range that the employer is working with. I suspect this is out of a combination of surprise at being asked, and wanting to help make a good impression with you, the candidate, after learning that they haven’t convinced you to join yet.

Got any other hot tips and tricks for salary negotiation? I’d love to hear them.

Also - that link I included above to Patrick McKenzie’s blog post on salary negotiation? Go read it. It’s excellent, and it will make you more money.

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