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Advice / Job Search / Job Offer

Do You Have to Tell Recruiters Your Current Salary?

people negotiating

Hi The Muse,

Earlier today, I got a cold email from a recruiter about an open position in my field. The position is a decent step up from where I am now (in fact, I had seen the job posted and figured I was too junior to apply), and so I figured, sure—I'll tell him I'm interested in hearing more. I received an e-mail right back from him setting up a time to chat on the phone, and then—tacked on to the end—was: “Oh, and please give me your current salary.”

Er, OK?

Do I just give it to him? Even though he barely knows anything about me, and I barely know anything about the job? Is it bad to say I’d prefer to wait to discuss salary? Or am I wasting both of our time by not just being up front? And then, if we're talking salary so soon, is it OK for me to ask what he's aiming to pay for the position? It only seems fair!

Hope my plight can provide some information!


Dear Reluctant,

You’ve correctly intuited that your current compensation will act as a strong anchor, influencing your prospective employer’s judgment about your value. You’re also justifiably reluctant to refuse to disclose your current compensation, since it sounds like your salary is likely much lower than the range for this higher-level position.

Unfortunately, you do need to answer your new employer’s inquiries. Not only are you likely to eventually “give in” at some point during the conversation, withholding information will likely irritate and create suspicion in the mind of your bargaining partner.

But take heart. Employees seemingly stuck in the black hole of their current salary have two powerful negotiation tactics available to them—reanchoring and reframing. Politicians call these strategies “spin,” trial attorneys call them “characterizing the facts,” and Jimmy Kimmel calls them hilariously funny.

Late last year, Kimmel sent a camera crew out onto the streets of Hollywood to ask people whether they favored “Obamacare” or the “Affordable Care Act”—different descriptions for one health care law. In doing so, he was not only pranking an unsuspecting public, he was also conducting a social psychology experiment in anchoring and framing.

Here’s the set up. Kimmel’s “reporter” asked random passersby whether and why they favored Obamacare over the Affordable Care Act or vice versa. This is an old trial lawyer trick. The form of the question suggests that they are two different laws when in fact they are the same law, known by two different names.

We don’t know how many people “bit” on this misdirection, but those who did were decidedly influenced by the terms “affordable” and “Obama.” One interviewee who preferred the ACA opined that the word affordable “says it all.” Others transferred their distaste for the president onto the legislation, favoring the ACA over “Obamacare” because “Obamacare” was “un-American” or “socialist.”

The lesson for you here, and for other job seekers, is the relative ease with which people’s point of view can be altered and their opinions changed by the words we use to describe a law, a product, a service, or a person.

So, by all means, give the headhunter what he wants—your current total compensation (including benefits, bonuses, and the like). But then immediately reframe and reanchor that number by following these simple steps:

  1. Find your dusty old job description and rewrite it to reflect the duties you’ve picked up and the skills you’ve acquired over the years. Is your current salary reflective of what you’re actually doing? Hint: For most people, the answer is no.
  2. Go to an online resource such as Glassdoor or GetRaised to research current salary information for the work you’re actually doing. Better yet, use Take the Lead’s Close the Gap App to walk you through all the necessary steps to create a strategic career plan and nail your current market value.
  3. Pick the top of any salary range you’re given. Don’t go for the middle—assume you’re entitled to top pay. Plus, you need room to negotiate.
  4. Tell the headhunter you’d be incentivized to leave a company where you have an established reputation, valuable institutional knowledge, and an internal network supporting your long-term career plan only for a position that compensates you for your current market value—and give that number.
  5. Choose a single, powerful rationale to back that market value up. I favor the recession theme because it has affected everyone no matter where they sit on the corporate ladder. Think something along the following lines: “My company has fallen a bit behind other players in the market for employees in the position I’ve filled, particularly given the duties I’ve picked up because of recession-era attrition. I’m looking to bring my position up to market, both promotionally and in terms of compensation.” The key is to stress that you’re not looking for an incremental increase from your current salary. You’re looking for a new opportunity to grow beyond circumstances that have been frozen in place for everyone as a result of the recession.
  6. Then wait. Don’t over-explain. And meanwhile, be prepared with a number of your own—what you’d ideally like to make—if you are given a counter-offer.

If you continue moving forward and talking about this position, repeat this process every time you hit impasse or are asked for a counter. Your theme not only reinforces your anchor, it also acts as a security blanket, allowing you to answer unexpected questions without faltering.

Branding expert Sheba Khodadad of 6DegreesDeep says that the repetition of a single coherent message is at the heart of branding strategies by companies big and small. Wearing the Nike brand makes you feel like an athlete. That feeling isn’t random, says Khodadad. It’s the result of years of repetition of Nike’s themes of athletic excellence, drive, ambition, and, persistence. Your personal brand— excellence stalled by a massive economic meltdown—if reiterated often enough, will drive your prospective employer toward your number more surely than your current compensation, a number that will be left in the dust of your theme supported by objective evidence of your value.

Take charge of the conversation and you shape the narrative of (and compensation for) your own career.

Good luck, and do let us know how you fare with this career opportunity.

This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask an Expert in the subject line.

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