Some interview questions are hard to answer, like the ever-famous “Why do you want to work here?” (because I like money and not starving?) and “Why should I hire you?” (because I’m awesome and super qualified for the job?). I hate those questions, and the day will come when I write a guide on how to answer them, but in the words of Aragorn, it is not this day!
No, today, I’m focusing on the most dreaded lose-lose question: how much money are you currently making?
It’s kind of an ethical matter, at this point. There’s a school of thought that this question is one of the reasons that the gender pay gap is still so ubiquitous, and why racial salary discrimination still occurs. 5 states and 4 cities have now made it illegal to ask. Maybe one day it’ll be illegal nationwide, relegated into the archaic abyss where it belongs!
One can hope.
Let’s go into why it’s a lose-lose question
As mentioned above, there are ethical reasons that this question should get the boot. However, take the ethical aspect completely out of the equation, and you’ll find that it still puts the candidate in a rough spot.
Some try to make the argument that you need to know someone’s salary history in order to know what you should be paying them. I question the motives behind that thought. Why would my current salary impact what I should make at my next job? What if I’m currently underpaid? What if I gained a ton of new skills at my current job but my compensation hasn’t adequately reflected that? Am I destined to be underpaid forever due to anchoring?
A quick crash course on anchoring
“A well-known cognitive bias in negotiation, anchoring is the tendency to give too much weight to the first number put on the table and then inadequately adjust from that starting point.”
If you’re hiring for a position with a budget of $70,000 to $80,000 and a candidate tells you they’re making $50,000, you may end up offering the candidate $58,000 – that’s still a decent pay bump, and now you’ve effectively gotten the person for a steal. Great for your budget, but do you see how detrimental that is to the candidate? They’ll end up underpaid again because they were underpaid before. By providing an actual number of what they’re making, they’re now stuck in a perpetual underpaid loop.
This exacerbates the issue.
As a candidate, how should you answer the “how much money” question?
Q: How much are you currently making?
A: I’d rather not discuss prior compensation. I’m looking to make [x amount / range].
A: I would need to make [x amount / range] for this position.
A: Could we discuss the range for this position?
Q: What are your salary expectations?
A: What’s the range for the position?
A: With my current skillset, [x amount / range] is where I’d like to be.
A: I’m looking to make [x amount / range].
A: I’m sure we can reach a fair agreement on salary. What’s the range you’ve budgeted for the position?
A: Based on my experience and research, I’d like to make [x amount / range].
In short, try to push back on them. Sidestep a bit, have them throw out a number first, and don’t give an exact number on what you’re making. Instead, ask about ranges, decline to answer, etc. Also, when you do provide a range for what you’re looking to make, inflate the number a little bit. This is a negotiation, and chances are they’ll try to talk you down a bit – so start slightly higher than what you’re ultimately hoping for.
This is usually an uncomfortable part of the interview process, so it’s important to stay pleasant through this step. Don’t be brash or rude in your negotiations. Yes, yes, it goes without saying – but I wouldn’t be saying it if it didn’t need to be said!
What if they’re really pushy in knowing how much money I make?
Broadly speaking, the companies that absolutely insist on knowing your salary history are most likely the ones who will try to lowball you or anchor you to that number – and those are the companies you probably shouldn’t work for.
However, if you want to work for a company that is insistent on knowing how much money you are / were making, something like this should suffice:
My current compensation is below market at [x amount]. However, with the experience and skills that I have gained, and with the research I have made on fair market rates, I am looking to make [x amount / range].
This makes it clear that you’re aware you’re being underpaid and won’t accept staying stuck in that cycle.
Working with a recruiter
One of the great parts of working with an ethical staffing agency is that we usually don’t bs when it comes to salary. We know the range the company is offering, so we don’t waste time. We may ask for your current salary, but we’ll follow up with “how much money do you hope to make in a new role?” and that’s the number we work off of to submit you to the client. Plus, if we feel like you’re undercutting yourself, we’ll usually submit you at a higher rate and try to get you more money.
Recruiters aren’t bad people. We work for the client, yes, but we do have the candidate’s best interests at heart as well. It’s not mutually exclusive. Give us a shot, you might be surprised at what we can do for you.