How job seekers should negotiate over salary

Last month, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to prohibit employers from asking about job applicants’ current or past salaries as part of the screening process.

The new law, which goes into effect in 2018, has been hailed as a groundbreaking effort to close the lingering wage gap between men and women, an issue that has been in the spotlight during the U.S. presidential campaign.

Hillary Clinton has called for equal-pay legislation to close this gap and protect workers from retaliation for asking about pay inequity. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka has publicly praised her father’s actions as an employer on equal pay and vowed they would both fight to wipe out the wage gap.

The Massachusetts law, which will also require employers to pay men and women equally for comparable work, is certainly good news for workers in the Bay State.

However, throughout the rest of the country it remains common practice for companies to ask job seekers about their current and previous salaries. The request often poses a dilemma for applicants, regardless of their gender. Many worry about disqualifying themselves from the running for a position or leaving money on the table by arming companies with information that forms the basis of a lowball offer.

“I’ve always thought it was a horrible question. What you are currently making or what you made in your last job is really besides the point,” said Robert Hellmann, a senior certified career coach at the Five O’Clock Club.

“The point is: What are you currently worth in the marketplace? What are your skills worth, and how do companies price those skills? That’s what you should be discussing,” added Hellman.

He advises his clients to try to avoid answering the salary-history question, especially if they’re in the enviable position of being able to walk away from a potential job because they have other good prospects. 

You can deflect the question several ways, he said, in addition to possibly putting “to be discussed” or “n/a” on an application that asks for salary information. One tactic is to turn the tables by asking a potential employer to disclose the pay for a position upfront. Job seekers can also try to politely change the subject, he said.  

He suggested saying something like, “Salary isn’t going to be an issue. I’m sure we will be able to work something out.”

Job applicants, he added, ought to look askance at companies that refuse to budge on the issue. “That’s a sign to me,” he said, “that they’re already focusing on the wrong thing” when it comes to hiring.

Of course, it behooves job seekers to be armed with good information going into salary negotiations. Networking is one way to gain insight about what you can expect in terms of salary for a particular job, said Hellmann. You can also find plenty of resources online, such as Glassdoor.com or the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ OccupationalOutlook Handbook.

Ideally, salary discussions should take place after a job candidate has landed an offer and is armed with information about the position’s total compensation, which can also include retirement benefits, profit sharing and other perks, said Hellman.

“It’s best to discuss salary after there’s an offer,” explained Hellman. That’s when all the leverage is switched to the job seeker. Before that, salary is really used as a candidate screening criteria.”