How to Avoid Those Salary History Questions

Last Updated Mar 15, 2010 9:02 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady, I'm an attorney working in-house. Although I have 8 years of great experience, I'm being underpaid (below six figures). I figure that I'm probably being paid $30,000 to $40,000 below market, and it's killing me at job interviews. When confronted about my salary history, I take the advice of some recruiters I've met: use the truth, which is that the work environment is great and when we get bonuses,(in the 15k range), it softens the blow. However, bonuses are gone in this economy, and I can't work at my current base. People assume that my responsibilities are low, which is not the truth at all. Is there anything else I can do to allay their concerns? Am I right that most HR people and recruiters look down on me because of my salary -- or am I a bit paranoid? I would love to say that you're just paranoid and have had a run of bad luck. But, truth be told, companies frequently base their salary offers on your previous salary.

This, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, is stupid. Sure, it's easy! First, make sure all the candidates have current salaries close to what you've slated for the open position. Then, take a look at the person's current salary and add 5 to 10 percent -- they'll jump to the new job! Right? Right. But that brand of thinking opens up inequities and, furthermore, keeps hiring managers from looking at some candidates who might be currently underpaid.

Blogs like Ask a Manager have said it before: relying on previous salary is sloppy on the part of recruiters, the compensation department, and managers. What you want is the best person for the job and a salary that's appropriate for the market. (Incidentally, people who are overpaid run into a very similar problem -- they can't get a new job because they make too much money. Even if they're willing to take less, no one will consider them.)

So, what can you do to keep from being rejected because of your current salary? Well, the old adage is that he who talks money first loses. You can refuse to mention your salary, but recruiters are wise to this, of course, and will push you to open up. Ask the Headhunter blogger Nick Corcodilos has some tips on warding off salary history inquiries. But if you can't put it off any longer, your best bet is to turn the conversation back to the value you will bring. If you feel you must divulge, try selling yourself:

"I currently make $85,000. That salary is significantly below market rate, which is one of the reasons I'm looking for a new job. I took this job originally because it was a fantastic opportunity for me. I was responsible for X and Y and I got to learn how to do Z first hand. I successfully did [blah blah blah] and [blah blah blah]. Now that I have these things under my belt, I'm looking for jobs in the $110,000 to $125,000 range because that's the fair market value for someone with my skills and experience."

Because they have bothered to call you, they have already determined that your skills and experience are in the right range for the job. Remind them of that. Now, it's highly likely that because you have a low salary, they will offer low. Always negotiate (even when they offer high). I have never known someone to have a job offer revoked simply because they asked for more money. The worst thing that will happen is they will say "No, the offer is firm."

It's a difficult job market, and being underpaid isn't helping. But stick to it and eventually you'll find a company willing to evaluate your skills, and not your previous salary.