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by Ask Vault | May 22, 2017


Dollar bill on a white brick background

Dear Vault,

I don't make a lot of money in my current job, and worry that future employers will use this to keep paying me less than I'm worth. What can I do when an employer asks for my salary details?




Dear Underpaid,

Nothing makes me more irritated than hearing about employers who ask for current or previous salary information.

First: It's none of their business.

Second: It shouldn't have any bearing on their decision to hire, or the amount they're going to pay for your services. You're either going to fit the role and create enough value to justify the salary they have in mind, or you're not. As such, if it does get taken into account, it's only ever going to help depress the offer you're getting—very few employers have ever said "I was only going to offer $45,000, but seeing as you're currently making $50,000 I decided to just match it."

And, third: it's an overly simplistic approach to compensation that basically reduces people to numbers on a spreadsheet. Let's say that you took a job with lower pay because it offered the chance to learn how to manage a team, over one that paid more but wouldn't have advanced your career or knowledge. Should you be punished for that decision in subsequent roles or rewarded for it?

Or maybe you agreed to trade less money for greater flexibility in terms of hours or location—none of that is captured in that one-dimensional "tell me what you earn now" approach.

Or maybe you were hired in a recession, or encountered a boss in a previous role who paid you less because of your race or gender—should that misfortune be amplified across every pay check you receive for the rest of your career?

[Steps off high horse]

The good news, Mr. or Ms. Underpaid, is that the tide is slowly turning in your favor: New York City recently passed a bill banning questions about prior salary as part of the hiring process. That followed similar provisions enacted in Philadelphia and Massachusetts recently. So if you're looking at a job in one of those places—or with a company that is headquartered in, or that may feasibly be sending you to work in one of those places at any point—then a well-placed "I don’t think you're allowed to ask me that" could be the answer to your dilemma.

Elsewhere in the country, you might not be protected by the law yet, but there are still steps you can take to protect your current salary information during the hiring process. Essentially, there are three main avenues open to you:

1)      Refuse to answer the question

2)      Lie

3)      Work around the issue

Each of these is problematic in its own way. Obviously, lying to a potential employer is not something I recommend: many a career has foundered when a seemingly small omission or embellishment has been uncovered at later date. For that reason, no matter how tempting it may seem, take option 2 off the table right away. Whatever else happens, you don’t want to be the person who loses an offer or a job because your trustworthiness comes into question.

That leaves options 1 and 3.

Refuse to answer the question

If you're comfortable with it, I'd suggest coming up with a couple of stock pieces of language that you can use to deflect from the question. (Obviously this assumes that you're having a conversation—I'll deal with application forms in a second.)

When thinking about this kind of language, you want to go for something that comes across as assertive without being aggressive or negative. Something as straightforward as "I'm not really comfortable discussing that," or even "I'm not allowed to disclose my salary" might work. But be prepared: many recruiters will push back, and some might even tell you that they need the information before the application can be processed. If that happens, you need to know if you're prepared to walk away from the situation or not. If not, you can always proceed to the following step.

Work around the issue

Again, we're going to start this section assuming that we're talking to a real-life, live human being. Because there is only one way to work around an online application where a salary box is a required element—and that is to leave the form, do some networking and research, and find a real-life, live human to deal with instead. The good news: that's not just going to help you get around the salary disclosure issue—it's also going to improve your chances of landing the job. (Because we all know that online applications are like throwing a needle into a haystack at this point…right?)

Once you've made contact with a human—whether it's a persistent recruiter you've already attempted to stonewall, or one who's asking you the question for the first time—the key to working around the salary issue is to provide as full of a picture as you can. If you're underpaid because you took a stretch opportunity, say so: "I make x right now, but that doesn't reflect the level of work I've been doing recently."

If quality of life was a tradeoff—or is likely to be—mention that as well: "x is the salary number, but there are a lot of other elements to my compensation that I'd love to discuss with relation to this role."

And feel free to roll all of your financial variables up into one number: be sure to include bonuses, employer 401(K) contributions and the like.

Again, the best solution to your issue would be for employers to stop treating potential hires like boxes of cereal in the grocery store. But until they do, the only solution to dealing with the salary disclosure question is to figure out a response that you're comfortable with, and stick to it. And know that there are other ways to improve the offer you're likely to receive—including knowing what the position should pay, and being willing to make the first move when it comes to negotiation.

Good luck out there!

Ask Vault is Vault's advice column, answering your questions on interviews, résumés, cover letters, and other aspects of your job search. If you have a question for Vault, send it to